Exploring the Relationship Between Research and Media Attention
What Media Attention Can (and Cannot) Do for Your Research
Today, the way we disseminate scientific research is very different from how it was a couple of decades ago. With various web-based platforms such as news outlets and social media paying more attention to scientific findings, its consumption by the lay audience has seen a drastic increase. This is accompanied by a growing awareness in the science community regarding the importance of research dissemination to a wider audience, with many now seeing it as a fundamental responsibility of researchers. Various universities are now expected to present evidence on the social impact that their research has (for example, REF in the UK). No doubt, there is an added pressure on researchers to make their mark in both the scientific and non-scientific world. But, many questions still continue to plague the scientific community. What exactly does media attention mean for scientific research? Does it also, in some way, have an effect on the attention given to it by the scientific community? Does media attention increase or decrease the value of scientific research?
It is not that this relationship between non-scientific (attention given to the research by the lay public) and scientific impact (attention given to the research by the science community has never been explored before. Previous studies have proposed explanations like the “earmark hypothesis,” which says that the media will cover those studies that are valuable (implying that they didn’t need media coverage in the first place). Another explanation, called the “publicity effect,” has also been explored, which basically states that “any publicity is good publicity.” And while these hypotheses claim to answer a few questions, they have not been fully explored yet. Why? Because it isn’t easy to quantify either scientific or non-scientific impact—more so considering that the flow of information between traditional news platforms and social media is bidirectional.
In an effort to fix the gaps in our current understanding on what media attention actually does to scientific research, a new study tried to dig deeper into the association of non-scientific and scientific impact. In this study, published in PLOS One, scientists decided to take a mathematical approach to try to find some these answers. They used tools like the Altmetric Attention score and number of social media mentions to measure non-scientific attention, whereas scientific attention was measured through citations in other research papers through platforms like Scopus, Mendeley, etc. Since factors like author and journal reputation can influence both scientific and non-scientific attention, the scientists accounted for these in their calculations.
The research team studied a large dataset, consisting of more than 800 peer-reviewed research papers. Their emphasis was on research related to physical health and exercise, considering that these areas are often the most talked about in the media. Their findings confirmed what has been speculated before: there was indeed a positive influence of non-scientific impact on scientific impact, meaning that scientific experiments receiving more attention in non-scientific media such as mainstream news and/or social media are cited more in other scientific articles. This could mean two things: either the media are discussing the most relevant papers or that increased coverage of a scientific article increases the likelihood of an article receiving scientific citations. Their observations also indicated that the factors that had been accounted for, author and journal reputations, also influenced the number of citations. But what was not revealed through their experiments was whether this relationship is causal.
P. Sage Anderson, the lead author of this study, explains, “Our findings do not indicate that scientists, or their associated institutions, will experience greater scientific impact by enlarging their media relations staff or expanding their social media outreach. But, given the strong association, they should carefully consider the impact of popular and social media when striving to expand their influence or evaluate the influence of individual scientists.”
The perception of scientific research, in both the non-scientific and scientific worlds, is multidimensional. Thus, many aspects of non-scientific and scientific attention to research still need more clarity. But, one thing is clear through this study: While scientific outreach is crucial to make it more accessible to the general public, it may also be directly beneficial to researchers trying to bring other scientists’ attention to their research. It is a two-way street, after all.
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