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Urging Faculty Forward Into The Brave New World of The Twittersphere

Perelman School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Medicine David Grande, MD, hosted the 'Social Media 101 for Academic Researchers' session at the recent Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) annual retreat. Play the 25-minute video to view presentations.

The social media phenomenon that has revolutionized our culture's mass communications has, to a large degree, been ignored throughout the cloistered world of academic research. But that's beginning to change, according to presentations at a recent seminar at the University of Pennsylvania.

As part of the annual retreat held for its more than 200 Senior Fellows in the field of health services research, Penn's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) included a panel of four academics who are each exploring how Twitter and blogging can be integrated into scholars' work to amplify and broaden its reach.

Two of those -- David Grande and Zachary Meisel -- are also the authors of a new study published in Health Affairs that surveyed 325 health policy researchers and found that a large majority are not using social media to communicate research findings and many feel such communications are incompatible with academic research.

In opening the social media panel, Grande (@davegrande), who is LDI's Director of Policy, focused on the troubling gap that exists between the important new findings of health services researchers and the federal and state policymakers who never learn about those scientific discoveries. He kicked off the discussion by quoting from the National Academies' "Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy." That 2012 report lamented that the latest science wasn't being effectively diffused into public policy debates.

Evidence-influenced politics

"As academics, we often feel like we should be having 'evidence-based' policy debates," Grande told the audience of scholars. "But what the National Academies was arguing was that politics and policy are inextricably intertwined and what we really need is evidence-influenced politics -- and social media can be a powerful tool for achieving that."

"Blogs are a messy space," he said, "but they're also a great way to editorialize on research and news that has policy relevance. Twitter has also become a very significant channel for communicating research findings that can be targeted at specific audiences."

Grande, an MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, and health services researcher, is part of a three-person team currently studying social media attitudes and practices -- or lack of practices -- among a group 325 health policy academics from institutions across the country. One of his co-investigators -- Zachary Meisel (@zacharymeisel) -- was a panel member who provided some preliminary findings.

Little confidence in Social Media

Meisel, an MD, emergency physician in Penn's Health System, and Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, explained they
Zachary Meisel
Zachary Meisel, MD
conducted both a survey as well as person-to-personal interviews with the subjects about the comparative value of using traditional media, direct outreach or social media to communicate research findings in a way that effectively reached key policymakers.

Respondents had little confidence in social media as a communications tool, ranked it low in peer respect, and thought it unlikely to contribute to their academic career advancement. Only about 14% of the group were actually engaged with Twitter and only 21% said they had ever blogged about their own or others' research.

The person-to-person interviews were designed to sound out a sense of the scholars' attitudes and perceptions about social media as a potential scholarly communications tool.

"There was real concern about the professional risk of engaging in social media," said Meisel. "They felt there were real risks if they didn't do it right or tweeted something that could later be 'used against them.'"

Twitter data as research tool

In a completely different genre of academic studies, third panelist Raina Merchant (@RainaMerchant) is involved in collecting and using Twitter information as a new kind of research data. An MD and Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine
Raina Merchant
Raina Merchant, MD
at the Perelman School, she is also the Director of the newly-launched Penn/LDI Social Media and Health Innovation Lab. There each day, her research team pulls down 3 to 5 million tweets and analyzes the patterns of health-related behavior they can document.

"There's a lot of this sort of Twitter-based research work going on elsewhere in the country around public health and public policy issues," she said.

"You can pull a surprising amount of information from the Twitter platform," Merchant explained. "There's data about the person tweeting; you can infer their age, their race, their geographic location, their likes and dislikes. You can determine their political associations. You can get information regarding whether their messages are positive or negative. A number of studies using this kind of data have come out of the disaster and emergency literature where agencies are using Twitter to learn about emergencies early as well as for real-time situational awareness surveillance in disasters."

The final panel speaker was Janet Weiner (@weinerja), MPH, LDI Associate Director of Health Policy, and editor of the LDI Blog which was launched last year as a platform for Senior Fellows’s commentary on research and policy issues.

Boosting blog posts with Twitter

"It's important to understand that writing and publishing a blog post is not the end of the process," said Weiner. "After it's up we use cross-posting, Twitter and email
Raina Merchant
Janet Weiner, MPH
to move the post's message to a larger audience."

"Cross posting" refers to the process of publishing a post on one's own blog as well as arranging to have it posted on other blogs that have audiences interested in the same topic. For instance, LDI's blog cross posts with news organizations like WHYY's Newsworks, the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Field Clinic" blog, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's "Human Capital" blog.

Weiner explained how LDI uses Twitter to push blog posts by Senior Fellows. For instance, LDI Co-Director of Research and Associate Professor of Medicine Peter Groeneveld (@petegroen), MD, recently wrote a 1,100-word post in response to an article in the MIT Technology Review about the cost of medical technology. LDI Executive Director Dan Polsky (@healthecon_dan) tweeted Groeneveld's post link to his 900 Twitter followers. One of those Polsky followers was Boston University professor Austin Frakt (@afrakt), creator of the widely read Incidental Economist blog. Frakt retweeted Polsky's tweet to his followers. Subsequently, one of Frakt's followers -- Harvard professor and author Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) -- picked it up and retweeted the Groenveld item to his 88,000 followers.

"So in the course of two days," said Weiner, "we had a blog post by Peter Groenveld that was delivered to the smartphones and computer screens of 100,000 people at almost no cost."

"While not every post is going to get that kind of pickup," Weiner continued, "it's easy to see how a researcher can take what he or she knows and get it out there where the world can really see it, thereby broadening their audience. We are very excited about the possibilities this presents for researchers."

Beyond low-impact academic journals

"You know the traditional life cycle of a research article," said Grande as he wrapped up the panel. "There's an embargo. Your paper comes out. Maybe there's a press release and maybe there's some pickup for a day or two in the traditional press. And then dissemination ends. But these novel new social media channels offer something that can take you beyond that; something that allows us to harness the expertise here at Penn and get it out there as a dynamic contribution to public policy debates. It's something very powerful and something we need to work on as a university and a professional community to leverage our resources."

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Hoag Levins (@HoagLevins) is a journalist and editor of digital publications at the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI).

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