Data bite: what kind of research is popular online?

The data underlying Altmetric’s top 100 articles of last year suggest that health research shared on Twitter has most impact

January 2, 2018
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The use of alternative metrics such as social media posts to measure the impact of research has been a growing, albeit controversial, trend in recent years.

Last month’s publication of the most popular articles in 2017 according to their online reach was the latest to reveal the kind of scholarship that got people tweeting and sharing.

But do the data on the list, which was published by Altmetric – specialists in analysing the online impact of academic work – shed any further light on the type of research that will fly on the internet?

What is immediately clear is that there is a clear slant towards science, and in particular health, scoring well on alternative metrics. The only non-science subject categories in the list – Studies in Human Society, and History and Archaeology – only represented 13 papers in the top 100.

The impact of some of the best-known science journals is also telling: more than a quarter of the research on the list was published in Nature and The Lancet, with the former having the most articles (16). However, the average “Altmetric Attention Score” – a weighted count of the attention that the article received from different sources – was highest for The Lancet.

Other statistics show that research that sits behind a paywall represented just over half (51) of the scholarship in the top 100, while 31 articles were open access and 18 were “free to view” (but not open access). Again, the average attention score tells a slightly different story, with open access and paywall articles being very closely matched.

Meanwhile, the influence of different alternative metrics on the final attention score can be investigated by looking at their correlation with the main result.

Altmetric gives much more weight in the attention score to research that features in a news article than on social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. However, although the main types of alternative metric have a positive correlation with the final score, it appears that there is a stronger relationship between Twitter and the overall outcome, suggesting that this is the most important platform for research aiming to make a splash online (at least in terms of the way that it is measured by Altmetric). 

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