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Social media, knowledge translation, and gerontological research

Social media platforms have become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives with inroads into sports, politics, and increasingly, research. With humble beginnings as software developed with the intent to connect college students, i.e. Facebook, and to share music, i.e. MySpace, these platforms have evolved and grown exponentially in scale, leading to widespread applications and usage in the research world. More recently, new social media platforms have been designed specifically for researchers, with the explicit objective to connect researchers and to disseminate their research findings. Here, I will describe some of the strengths and limitations of some popular social media platforms as they relate to gerontological research.

With over 2.7 billion monthly active users worldwide, Facebook is an incredibly popular platform with unprecedented reach. However, there are drawbacks to this popularity for the researcher: it can be difficult for researchers and laypersons alike to delineate between fact and fiction. If one is intending to disseminate research findings on this platform, their content may be presented alongside sensationalist and pseudoscientific “research”, with click-bait headlines and flashy marketing. As highlighted by the recent US election, Facebook has started to crack down on the spread of misinformation and false news. The policing of research findings may, however, be a lower priority than monitoring political propaganda and, consequently, not subject to the same degree of scrutiny. That said, the increasing popularity of Facebook amongst older adults may provide unique opportunities to reach and engage with these groups. That being said, within a gerontological research context, issues such as the digital divide, i.e. challenges related to the uptake and usage of technologies, can be inhibitive in disseminating findings to older adults, particularly those in lower socioeconomic positions.

A unique and valuable facet of Facebook that can be utilized in a research sphere is community building. Setting up a group for a research lab permits the stimulation of dialogue with members of the public from across the world, as well as the possibility for recruitment of study participants. The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, for example, has a healthy community of researchers and public in their Facebook group, stimulating conversation amongst both researchers and members of the general public.

Twitter has an incredibly active academic community with a remarkable depth and breadth of dissemination. However, similar to Facebook, an unfortunate drawback of this popular non-research-focussed platform is disinformation. Recently, a study published in Science revealed that “fake news” actually travels faster and farther than the truth via Twitter. Despite this drawback, there are myriad researchers that use the platform as an effective mechanism for sharing their research, connecting with researchers and otherwise engaging the general public. The use of hashtags also enables researchers to follow specific focus areas, for example #academictwitter is a popular hashtag amongst academics.

Two interesting (and tongue-in-cheek) studies have been conducted examining the relationship between the number of Twitter followers and the relative scientific merit of individual researchers and of academic journals. Neil Hall developed the Kardashian-Index (K-index) to highlight researchers that have discrepant social media followings relative to their public profile, so-called “Science Kardashians”, by examining the number of Twitter followers a researcher had accrued compared to the number of citations the researcher had received. According to Hall : “a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.” I conducted a similar study, but instead of individuals I examined the relationship between the number Twitter followers for general medical journals as compared to their impact factor. In both examples, a positive relationship was identified between the number of Twitter followers and scientific merit, which does provide some evidence that more robust science is receiving the most attention.

As social media platforms began to proliferate into different specialty areas, two research-oriented platforms emerged: and Researchgate. Both of these platforms are prolific in their promotion and dissemination of academic papers, conference proceedings, and other research outputs. Researchers set up profiles, similar to Facebook, but instead of photos the pages are populated with research outputs. In addition to adding these materials to one’s profile, users are able to follow researchers, questions posed by researchers, and to provide feedback and comments on research outputs. By promoting both a dissemination component and a community aspect, these platforms harness some of the more positive aspects of platforms like Facebook, and their research focus eliminates a great deal of the noise that permeates platforms like Twitter. That said, these platforms are much less useful for disseminating applied research to the general public than they are to fundamental researchers disseminating their research to other scientists. For gerontologists and other researchers focused on the health and wellbeing of older adults, this provides an even greater barrier to entry to the dissemination of findings to older adults. These platforms are excellent mechanisms for contacting and collaborating with researchers, but alternative means of broader dissemination are necessary for reaching older adults.

Depending on a researcher’s intended audience and objectives, some social media platforms may be better suited than others. Taking into consideration different attributes of each platform, such as the reach, accessibility, and purpose can guide researchers in their decision whether to engage in different platforms. Particularly within the context of research with older adults, it is important to take into consideration your target audience and how they might access this information and how you might engage them. As social media continues to become a part of our personal and professional lives, hopefully we can find ways to utilize social media to increase the impact of our research on older adults.

About the Author

Theodore D Cosco joined the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2016 as a Research Fellow. Dr. Cosco is a Chartered Psychologist (British Psychological Society) trained in applied social research methods (MSc 2011, Trinity College Dublin) and epidemiology (PhD 2015, University of Cambridge), and Assistant Professor of Mental Health and Aging in the Department of Gerontology, Simon Fraser University. His research interests include resilience, mental health, and the interface between technology and healthy 3ageing. 

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