I saw a great analogy on twitter the other day, about how asking how to get ‘the most’ out of twitter was like asking ‘How you do get a gold medal at the Olympics?’ The answer: It depends entirely on which particular game you’re planning to play, and there isn’t one over riding obvious pathway to success in all quarters.
I suspect there are definitely some commonalities across what different athletes do, perhaps most easily defined by shared things they shouldn’t do, like eating junk food or taking illegal substances. Similarly on twitter, I think everyone should be mindful to try to avoid statements they’ll regret (the rule of thumb is “Don’t tweet anything that you wouldn’t be willing to wear on a t-shirt”) and to avoid trolling (or, in it’s weaker form, just being a bit of an arse to people).
But beyond that, it really does depend on the game you want to play. If you want to just get the most followers you can, then there are ways of doing this, from paying for the privilege to joining the ranks of people with ~~*ALWAYS FOLLOW BACK*~~ emblazoned in their bio. For me though, I’m not sure that’s really the point. I want to follow people who interest me (eg. service users, other mental health researchers, also comic artists and anyone who likes cats) and I’m happy when those people follow me back and talk to me or favourite things I say. I certainly don’t expect large swathes of the public to do this though. I’m aware that there are people – unnatural, unfathomable people – who don’t actually like cats.
When I speak to academics about twitter, a worrying number of them seem to think that twitter is a secret route to improving their impact factor. The impact factor is the number of citations (being cited in future papers by other academics) a paper/journal gets. I sincerely have no idea how twitter is supposed to help with this. If you want other academics to cite you, we have fairly traditional ways of doing this, and I really don’t think that a. twitter is swarming with academics waiting to cite your paper and b. non-academics on twitter have any interest in citing anything. I’d also point out that most of the public can’t access journals anyway, but that there is a smashing discussion on twitter about exactly this – try searching #openaccess.
My point is, I think some academics are trying to play a particular game, but it’s not one they can play on twitter. Trying to get a gold medal in impact factor on twitter is like trying to win a Nobel prize at the Olympics.
The games you can play are pretty good though. There’s “chatting to actual patients about health research”, which can be dismaying, enlightening, challenging and rewarding. There’s “following charities and councils and being first to hear about new reports/funding opportunities”, which has obvious advantages. There’s also “sharing experiences with other academics” using tags such as #ecrchat (early career researcher) or #phdchat. And, of course, the esteemed and venerable institution of “academics messing around in a bit of a geeky way”, through games like #XmasSongsAsPapers. Finally, if none of that appeals, there are many, many pictures of cats. And possibly dogs, if you’re One Of Those People.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use twitter to draw attention to your work. I’m certainly not averse to tweeting my own papers – if you have other academic followers then it’s a way of flagging up work that might be relevant to them. I do have an aversion though to academics who try to make this “cute” rather than acknowledging it for what it is, ie. blatant self-promotion. Stuff like “Oh, I’m such a geek, my latest systematic review is out!“, or the classic humblebrag “Wow, can’t believe little old me has a paper here in Lancet #crazy” are just not classy. Perhaps even worse, junior researchers who only ever seem to tweet papers by their supervisors, sometimes accompanied by “well done X on their latest paper!“. Why? And also – STOP IT.
NB. There is a suggestion that tweeting can improve the attention a paper gets, though I don’t think there’s any formal analysis of this yet (I’m not sure if journals themselves keep an eye on this?). Also, for academics, accessing a paper isn’t the same as citing it, so it wouldn’t necessarily follow that a paper that gets more attention would have a higher citation score.