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'Wild west' of social media for medical journals needs more support to succeed

‘American tax dollars are paying for research the public never hears about’

Twitter for medical journals

Much of the published medical research goes unread by the general public and medical community, despite being largely funded by the federal government and private foundations. To reach more people, medical journals have begun using social media to promote new research. 

A new Northwestern Medicine study has found social media editors lack established best practices and support from their journals and home institutions, making it difficult for them to successfully promote new research. 

In general, the median citation rate for journal articles -- when one paper refers to another paper -- is zero, meaning a lot of new research isn’t being read even in the medical community. If utilized correctly, social media could help journals increase awareness of new research, according to the study. But first, social media editors need more resources and support. 

Our study found journals didn’t really know what these people should be doing. They would tell new editors to ‘take this job and do what you can with it.’ It’s the wild west.

Dr. Seth Trueger
Assistant professor of emergency medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
“American tax dollars are paying for research the public never hears about,” said senior author Dr. Seth Trueger, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a practicing physician at Northwestern Medicine. “I’m optimistic we can get the word out through social media, but we first need to explore and develop tried-and-true methods to distribute this information to the public.” 

Study authors urge medical journals to define social media editor roles and responsibilities more clearly and provide more resources to social media editors.

The study was published this week in the journal Academic Medicine. It is the first study to examine this specific role of social media editor at medical journals. 

Journals may be able to help social media editors to more effectively get the word out and determine which strategies are most effective, study authors said. Doing so will help journals and social media editors better focus their limited resources.

“Many journals have been building social media editor positions, which is great, but as a relatively new niche, our study found journals didn’t really know what these people should be doing,” Trueger said. “They would tell new editors to ‘take this job and do what you can with it.’ It’s the wild west.”

The study also found: (1) monetary support for these roles is lacking; (2) journals use different metrics to measure engagement and success; and (3) there is no consistency in editor responsibilities among journals. 

In addition to his role at Northwestern, Trueger previously was the social media editor for the Annals of Emergency Medicine. He is now the digital media editor at JAMA Network Open and said his goal is to “get eyeballs on the science.”

First study to examine social media editor role at medical journals

Something Trueger has learned in these positions is how impactful social media can be for medical research, if done properly. 

“If you have a paper on a Medicare program, you don’t just have physicians looking at that research; there are health economists, patient groups and the general public who have an interest in it,” Trueger said. “If we can determine which strategies work for online dissemination, a social media editor’s success rate for sharing new information to a wide audience can skyrocket.” 

Medical schools and universities should better incorporate social media engagement with more tangible support, such as academic credit toward promotion and tenure, according to the study.

Given the overall lack of tangible support reported by social media editors in the study, medical journals should consider providing non-physician staff to help manage social media accounts to support editors in their positions, the study suggested. 

Twenty-four social media editors from 19 medical journals participated in the study. The study was funded by the Summer Research Program at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, which is in part funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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