Trick up and Treat: can socials boost research rank?

Can universities boost rankings by focusing social media strategy on boostering research?

University leaders grapple at least annually with an existential crisis. Successive governments appear to value universities only as vocational training entities, pumping out defined numbers of graduates, hopefully in fields that align vaguely with workforce need. Research is so underappreciated that governments are content not only to run down real funding levels, but they can’t even be bothered measuring whether our research is any good or not (hence no rush to replace ERA).

Into the breach steps the bright-eyed academic who may not be able to solve the institutional malaise, but wants to ensure their research is valued and cited by many, validating their hours of grind and assisting with their rise through the ranks, so that they, too, may one day enjoy annual retreats where they can wring their hands over the lack of national vision.

Can our eager early career academic get ahead by pushing their wares onto colleagues and an unsuspecting public on social media?

In March, Nature reported on findings that Tweeting your research paper boosts engagement but not citations, indicating there was no clear link between tweeting and citations.

This is a valuable discussion, but seems to be missing something in the premise – seeking to make conclusions based on what currently occurs, rather than on what could or should happen.

Another article on this topic brings an alternative approach – a randomised control trial promoting articles from the international journal of cardiology heart & vasculature via Twitter/X, which found that articles with social media posting did not gain a statistically significant increase in early impact indicators, but did get an increased Altmetric Attention score. Again, useful, but every Tweet was not born equal. I once wrote an article about two ladies in a small rural town selling three cakes from a card table in the main drag. The event was minimal but the story garnered lots of attention the following day with a nice pic and a page 3 yarn on whether we were seeing the end of the street stall, a former staple of rural life. Were the cardiology boffins composing the tweets in this study natural born story tellers?

If we really wanted to test whether there is a causal link between social posts and citations we would deploy the university’s social media experts on a mission of citation growth, rather than just enrolment or reputation growth, and then we might have a better insight into cause and effect. Has the academic posting about their article thought about time of day for posts, channels, boosts, a/b testing, image selection, engagement of ambassadors, linkage to timely topics? Probably not frequently enough for it to be a valid test. Just because I buy a hammer doesn’t mean I am ready to build a house.

Maybe more relevant is an article by Mark Griffiths that suggests multiple channels and tactics are required for citation maximisation; or tips compiled by various LinkedIn contributors on maximising impact; or multiple other articles that have looked at this topic.

In the end, maybe you just have to ask the right question, instead of thinking analysis of the status quo could give you the best answer. Similar issue with how we embrace AI, or how we turn inefficient legacy processes that govern enrolment into something more user-friendly.

Should academic staff seeking to advance their career and improve the world continue to seek citations at all, or are we approaching a post rankings era when other impact metrics are accepted as more important?

Perhaps the Government’s new offensive against the HE status quo will prompt a new consideration that some of the sector’s answers lie in the employed-but-only-just-tolerated professional staff who are permitted to only roam in the recruitment realm.




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