A Digital Native’s Open Letter to the Academic Journal

Many of my grayer-haired relatives have recently made the leap to digital. The transition isn’t always smooth. There are the charming, all-CAPS lock emails; the Facebook posts to me … on their own wall; and even the occasional phone call about which app to use for playing a video with a .pdf extension. After the laughs and the face-palms, I remind myself that these fumbles are understandable. To transition from an analog lifestyle to a connected one is no easy task, and on some level, it’s important to respect and appreciate the effort itself.

It’s a similar philosophy that we should apply to the academic medical journal’s search for its place in an information economy centered on social media. In a distant era before I was born, medical journals produced content that was aggregated, validated, and current. Now, content aggregation is as affordable and simple as a well-curated Twitter feed or Flipboard Journal. Validation comes in the forms of shares, RTs, and up-votes by the trusted voices of one’s network. And as for current … don’t even ask me how many blog entries, Facebook posts, and tweets I penned in the nine months that this paper was under review, revision, re-review, final edits, and scheduling for publication. These factors all converge upon the question: how do medical journals ‘do digital’ and stay relevant in the time of social media?

If this week’s “Intention to Tweet” study in Circulation is any indication, the jury’s still out on that one. From Dr. John Gordon Harold at the “ACC in Touch” blog:

The trial, “Intention-to-Tweet,” randomized 243 articles published in Circulation to either receive social media or not and found no difference in median 30-day page views (409 [social media] versus 392 [control], P=0.80). There were also no differences observed by article type (clinical, population, or basic science; P=0.19), whether an article had an editorial (P=0.87), or whether the corresponding author was from the U.S. (P=0.73).

The trial authors noted that these findings suggest “a social media intervention in a traditional cardiovascular journal setting may not increase the number of times that an article is accessed and viewed in the first 30-days after publication.”

In brief: “We’re posting links to our articles, but readers aren’t clicking.” Despite the journal’s efforts, social media did little to boost article traffic. . What’s a journal to conclude—and how is it to respond—after that? If I’m the social media editor for a medical publication (oh wait!) here’s what’s on my mind:

Right message? If there was an antithesis to Buzzfeed or Upworthy’s trademark brand of clickbait, it’s something like this:

I’ve spent the last five weeks of my life living, breathing, and dreaming the cardiovascular system (which is a less hyperbolic system than I’m proud to admit), and I understand about 25% of this tweet. Understandably, the academic’s journal’s charge isn’t to make headlines, but to faithfully report the science. But if I’m allowed to be naive for a second and idealize research as an enterprise that creates knowledge, informs public opinion, and affects institutional decision-making … isn’t step 1 to make sure that research is seen? And isn’t a pre-requisite to being seen to be interesting, or curious, or evocative? When communication happens 140 characters at a time, even the best content may fall flat without a compelling ‘hook.’

Right medium? 75% of Twitter’s users are primarily mobile; for Facebook, it’s 78%. Let’s put the Circulation study’s findings into perspective, for a moment. Realistically, how often do you read any article—much less a full-length academic publication—from start to finish on a mobile interface? Also realistically, how often do you actually get back to the articles saved to Pocket, Readability, Instapaper, etc.? Now think about the last time you struggled with reading a PDF on a smart-phone (as if academic journals use large, easily-readable fonts to begin with …) and it’s entirely logical why social media hasn’t translated to page views for Circulation.

As mobile becomes the new default in how we access and interact with content, academic journals should reimagine how they present content to a society on the move. Podcasts? Short-form news updates? Info-graphics or tweet-embedded media? Perhaps it’s time to repackage the academic paper into formats that fit daily function.

Right audience? Beyond the Circulation study, here’s a real question for journals’ social media editors … who’s the [intended] audience? For most journals, it seems platforms like Facebook and Twitter are another channel for dialogue with providers [Exhibit A: the language of the above tweet]. That’s undeniably valuable; amid busy workflows, clinicians need filters to locate and organize the latest data, and social media is integral to that process.

Still, there’s a deeper conversation here about how academic medical journals can use their social media presence to connect with the real stakeholders: the patients. Patients are not only the key backers of research (read: taxpayers), but its core beneficiaries. A public presence offers an opportunity, perhaps even the obligation, to bring research findings out of the ivory tower and into a broader, community-wide dialogue.

In closing, I’m not too optimistic that social media will disrupt the academic journal enterprise anytime soon. Hands down, a well-curated Twitter feed offers more agile and accessible (not to mention affordable) content, any day. But for now, peer review outweighs social network curation; impact factor supersedes RTs or up-votes; and publication volume, not blog traffic, drives tenure decisions. In the meantime, academic journals would be well-served to think more deeply about how to craft their message and hone their medium for an ever-evolving, digitally-focused audience.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s