We have a new study for those who argue that social media, whatever its virtues may be, doesn't correlate very well with the real world. It comes from the Journal of Medical Internet Research and is based on a three-year study of that journal's articles' relative success in the Twitter and academic worlds.
The bottom line is simple: articles that many people tweeted about were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than those who few people tweeted about. Its implications are even more interesting. It generally takes months and years for papers to be cited by other scientific publications. Thus, on the day an article comes out, it would seem to be difficult to tell whether it will have a real impact on a given field. However, because the majority of tweets about journal articles occur within the first two days of publication, we now have an early signal about which research is likely to be significant.
The authors of the article suggest a new metric for scientific publishing they call the twimpact factor, after the standard impact factor:
Tweets can predict highly cited articles within the first 3 days of article publication. Social media activity either increases citations or reflects the underlying qualities of the article that also predict citations, but the true use of these metrics is to measure the distinct concept of social impact. Social impact measures based on tweets are proposed to complement traditional citation metrics. The proposed twimpact factor may be a useful and timely metric to measure uptake of research findings and to filter research findings resonating with the public in real time.
Now, it's certainly possible that not all journals will be subject to these same rules. This journal, in particular, has 'Internet' in the title, so its authors, readers, and tweeters may be more Twitter-savvy than most. However, if anything like this kind of correlation is found in other fields, a hidden value of Twitter's network will be revealed. Want to peer a year or two into the future of a scientific field? Fire up Tweetie and start searching.