BYU study in PLOS ONE finds link between media attention, citations
In March 2016, BYU featured research from the Marriott School showing that people eat less when they can hear themselves chewing and swallowing food. Over the following weeks, a range of media picked up the story, including Time, the Huffington Post, and even the hosts of The Today Show and Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
While not every scientific study shared on the BYU website and social media gets similar exposure, widespread interest is not uncommon: science produced by BYU faculty and students has been regularly covered by media near and far, from the Deseret News to the New York Times.
As it turns out, the public attention may be good news for professors hoping to increase their scientific impact among colleagues.
New BYU research published in PLOS ONE found that the more scientific experiments were referenced in popular media — mainstream news and social media — the more they were also cited in peer-reviewed literature. Popular media coverage was twice as likely to predict scientific impact as either author or journal reputation.
“The implication for science is that the media matters,” explained Sage Anderson, who worked on the project as an exercise science undergraduate. “Media attention and scientific impact are closely linked.”
Based on the study, researchers indicated, scientists should think more about framing their findings for general consumption.
“In academia, scientific citations are one form of ‘currency’—your case for tenure can be substantially strengthened depending on how much colleagues reference your papers,” said Matthew Seeley, an exercise science professor who led the study. “Our data suggests that scientists trying to leverage that scientific impact should promote their work on social media and in the mainstream news.”
Seeley became interested in the relationship between scientific and popular media citations when a small pilot study he coauthored, analyzing fluid around the knee joints of runners, “blew up” in the media after being featured by BYU.
He used to consider it “kind of a bother,” he said, when University Communications came knocking with questions about his work. But inundated with calls from news outlets, and surprised that his preliminary research garnered such attention, he decided to investigate whether scientific and media citations correlate.
The resulting research was “uncharted territory for our group,” said Anderson, noting the lack of literature on the topic. To determine if there was a correlation, Seeley built what he calls “the most interdisciplinary team I’ve ever published with,” eventually including faculty and students from exercise science, statistics and communications, as well as life sciences librarian Megan Frost and members of University Communications.
The team analyzed popular media references to 818 peer-reviewed scientific articles in five prominent sports science journals from 2007 and 2008. They used the Altmetric Attention Score to quantify popular mentions of the research and sites such as Scopus and Web of Science to quantify scientific impact. Controlling for other factors, they saw a robust association between the two types of citations, although a causal or chronological relationship wasn’t determined.
“You can conclude one of two things from this data,” Seeley said. “Either the media is really good at identifying the most impactful scientific papers, or scientists are not too different from the lay population and are more likely to write and read about topics they find in the popular media.”
Whichever comes first, “whether you love it or hate it, engaging with popular media can benefit a scientist these days,” he observed. “It’s helpful to pay attention, for example, to what your professional colleagues are talking about on Twitter or Facebook.”
The study also held important insights for University Communications. “Part of my job is to get faculty research much-deserved attention from local and national media,” said BYU media relations manager Todd Hollingshead, who contributed to the study. “To learn that media coverage is connected to more academic citations gives me even more incentive to help share the good work of our faculty.