Altmetric Blog

How to use altmetrics to craft a better microbiology research engagement strategy

Stacy Konkiel, 9th April 2019

With a growing demand from funders and universities for researchers to engage with the public, altmetrics are seeing increased interest across academia. Altmetrics are used by researchers worldwide as a complement to citation-based data when attempting to track the influence of their work and the success of their online engagement activities.

Trends in altmetrics can be used to understand engagement with disciplinary research, especially in the biological sciences–an area that sees relatively high levels of attention online. By learning from altmetrics data, microbiologists can sharpen their public outreach strategies to increase engagement with the research they publish.

What can we learn from altmetrics?

Altmetrics services like Altmetric.com can provide a fascinating snapshot of the discussions around microbiology research. Searching the Altmetric Explorer database using a list of the top twenty microbiology journals identified by Scimago Journal Rank, one finds 40,594 total articles were published in the discipline as of March 2018, 30,593 (75.4%) of which were mentioned a total of 260,703 times in the online sources tracked.

Looking specifically at the one thousand most discussed microbiology articles published in this list of journals, some interesting trends appear.

Text-mining techniques show that “gut microbiota”, “influenza virus”, and “infection” are among the top ten most-written about microbiology topics

Table 1: Ten most popular terms that appear in the titles and abstracts of the top 1000 Microbiology articles

WordsNumber of occurrences in titles and abstracts
Infection938
Human743
Virus709
Cells701
Bacterial584
TermsNumber of occurrences in titles and abstracts
Gut microbiota151
Influenza virus103
Microbial communities77
16S rRNA75
Gut microbiome72

These topics were calculated using the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) Python package. NLTK Bigrams finds word pairs in a corpus of text (in this case, in titles and abstracts) and ranks them according to how many times they appear.

While the single-word trends are unsurprising (Microbiologists write about cells! Who knew?! 😉), it’s fascinating to see from term co-occurrence data that gut microbiome research–a fringe topic not too long ago–is now the most talked about research topic online.

While trends should not drive the research topics one chooses to study, it is no doubt useful for microbiologists to know that gut-related research is capturing the public’s imagination right now.

Publishing in an open access journal might not be a bad idea

Three of the five journals that have published the most discussed articles most often (PLOS Pathogens, mBio, and Microbiome) are Open Access journals.

In the chart above, Open Access journals are colored green and subscription journals are colored blue.

Clearly, OA journals publish more of the articles that receive the most attention online!

Though it’s hard to say whether OA status causes engagement with research, there is a clear trend that the research with the highest engagement is published open access. This data point can and should inform how microbiologists choose to publish their research, with an eye towards maximum engagement.

Applied research will likely get more engagement

Among the most popular subjects for the top 20 microbiology journals include ‘infectious diseases’, ‘immunology’, ‘virology’, and ‘parasitology’. Clearly, microbiology research with a direct bearing on human health makes the biggest splash. This is in keeping with research that shows that biomedical research, in general, is the most-discussed topic online.

To be clear, this is not a reason to give up pursuing basic research topics! But it is helpful to know that those doing applied research can expect to get higher rates of engagement online–and to adjust your expectations for engagement with basic research accordingly.

Table 2: Most popular subjects for top 20 Microbiology journals (by 2016 Scimago Journal Rank)

Subject areaNumber of journals
Microbiology19
Infectious disease10
Immunology8
Virology7
Parasitology6
Microbiology (medical)5
Molecular biology3
General medicine3
Epidemiology3
Drug discovery3
Ecology, evolution, behavior and systematics2
Genetics1
Gastroenterology1
Soil science1

Microbiology research is insanely popular on social media and  scholarly sites

The highest proportion of mentions for research occurred in Twitter , mainstream media outlets (11,846 mentions), and Facebook (10,650 posts). Also notable were the proportion of mentions in public policy (2,040 citations) and post-publication peer review sites like Publons and Pubpeer (1,463 reviews).

Mentions for research published in the Top 20 microbiology journals (n = 1000), from sources that Altmetric.com tracks

For a full description of the sources that Altmetric tracks and their varying scopes, visit help.altmetric.com.

What this means for building a research engagement strategy

What does this information mean in practice? Important takeaways include:

  • The necessity of social media engagement: The volume of Twitter and Facebook mentions for microbiology research prove that many discussions are happening online. Authors should participate actively online in order to build bridges with other researchers and the public.
  • The importance of monitoring misconduct claims via post-publication peer review sites: Over 1,400 peer reviews on Publons and Pubpeer mean that the research community remains highly engaged with studies after the formal peer review period ends, pointing to a need for researchers and journals alike to stay abreast of conversations on these forums.
  • Outreach to policymakers can put research into practice: Public policy documents are an important way that research reaches practitioners in fields as varied as environmental health and bioethics. Over 2,000 mentions to microbiology research reaching as far back as the 1960’s prove the long-term importance of establishing these relationships.

By understanding trends in engagement with microbiology research in general, one can plan research-backed outreach strategies that can (crucially) set realistic expectations for the kinds and volume of engagement they might receive.

2 Responses to “How to use altmetrics to craft a better microbiology research engagement strategy”

Sri Amudha
April 13, 2019 at 12:00 am

How does one overcome the issues with fake online engagements using fake twitter handles/Facebook profiles? This question arise because I see that twitter is the major source of data for any altmetrics service. So how do we take a stand on the credibility of the 'people' who tweets/likes/share/comments on research articles? Thanks in advance.

Stacy Konkiel
April 15, 2019 at 12:00 am

This is an important question, Sri!

To date, we haven't seen a lot of fake online engagement around research; that said, some altmetrics services have applied mechanisms to combat intentional gaming of research, which can help to filter out the signal from the noise.

I also think transparency of the data can help--if you can read a paper's tweets and see Twitter users that are obviously fake, it disincentivizes researchers from attempting to game the altmetrics for their research.

Even more concerning to me is the possibility of mistaking Twitter counts for actual, useful engagement, given that research has shown that a majority of tweets about research don't add a lot of value (they tend to be throwaway tweets like, "Check out my latest article...").

This is one of the main reasons why some researchers are skeptical of the value of social media outreach, and can only be addressed by a) raising awareness of the difference between indicators of attention (e.g. Twitter acounts) and evidence of engagement (e.g. sustained Twitter conversations that engage deeply with a paper), and b) training researchers on creating engaging narratives around their research (a few universities and nonprofits do this, but not enough IMHO).

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