Creating impact – a game of two halves

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Grant-Jonathan-140x180This is a guest blog by Prof Jonathan Grant, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Professor of Public Policy. He tells us about his recent experiences publishing with BMC Medicine.

Two weeks ago I was involved in the publication of a research article in BMC Medicine that attempted to measure the economic returns from cancer research.  It showed that for every £1 invested by the UK government and medical research charities you got 10p back in terms of the value of health gains every year thereafter, and if you combined that with previous estimates of the ‘spillover’ (or broader economic effects), the return was 40 pence in the pound.

The work built on a previous study in 2008 that developed the methodology and estimated the returns from cardiovascular research – that study came up with similar results (39% return) but was published as a report .  We – colleagues from RAND Europe, the Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University, and the Office of Health Economics – tried to get a subsequent academic paper published from the report but understandably some journals, including BMC Medicine, were reluctant as it had already been put in the public domain.

This time we decided to publish the work as a paper as we wanted to secure the ‘credit’ for academic colleagues incentivised to build CVs of peer reviewed journal articles for promotion boards, REFs and other evaluative frameworks.

However, we were very conscious that academic papers are not typically read by the key audience for this paper, which were those people (aka ‘policymakers’) who make decisions about the allocation of research funds to different funding agencies such as the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).

An equally important consideration in the context of UK research, and especially cancer research, are the medical research charities and their donor base (with the exception of the endowed Wellcome Trust).

So given this tension we hatched a plan. We would publish in an open access journal, back that up with a policy-focused briefing note and use the collective power of the funders of the study (Cancer Research UK, Wellcome Trust, NIHR and Academy of Medical Sciences) to promote the paper to various media outlets.

The funders also found a ‘hook’ to launch the paper – a summer reception of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research. As a bit of an afterthought we decided to engage with social media through blogging and agreeing a twitter hashtag (#healthyreturns).

We chose an open access journal, in this case BMC Medicine, for two reasons. First, the work would be made available to the donor and taxpayer community that support medical research. Second, there was no word limit: we wanted to document in detail the assumptions and caveats of our work (and indeed that was the main motivation for a report the first time round).

The research team worked closely with the funders to develop a briefing note that summarised the paper in plain language, a press release and a Q&A document for the press release. A media plan was agreed between the funders, which involved sending an embargoed copy of the paper, briefing note and press release to journalists working across TV, newspapers and the trade press.

Dan Bridge (Cancer Research UK) and Liz Allen (Wellcome Trust) wrote a blog each, and over the weekend I drafted five 140 character tweets summarising the 18,000 word paper (a compression rate of 99.9%).

The first half was a dull goalless draw. No national media outlet picked up on the paper, although short pieces based on the press release appeared in a number of ‘trade’ outlets (BMJ, Research Fortnight, The Scientist).

But the second half was memorable – to our amazement we began to watch the social media interest intensify. Within 36 hours of publication, the paper had been accessed over 2,500 times on the BMC Medicine website; two weeks later there have been nearly 6000 hits.

We then found ourselves hooked to the Altmetric page linked to our published article – Altmetric is an innovation that tracks social media ‘buzz’ around academic papers by following social media sites, newspapers, government policy documents and other sources for mentions of scholarly articles. It combines this into a score allocating different weights to mentions on Twitter, in blogs and such like.

After two weeks, our paper had an Altmetric score of 134, which to our surprise was quite exceptional. The average score for all 2.2 million papers Altmetric follow (across a huge range of journals) is 4.8 and for the 760 BMC Medicine articles it follows, ours is ranked 14th. Through tweets and retweets we had reached an ‘upper bound’ of around 120,000 people.

Every morning I found myself checking my World Cup fantasy football results and our Altmetric score! (I was doing better on the latter). Some of the most interesting information was how the social media engagement spread geographically – 60% of the tweets were from outside the UK – and by different groups – 65% were from the general public and only 26% from other scientists and practitioners.

So what did I learn from this novel experience? For me, it was the combined power of social media and open access publishing. Social media acted as a sign post to the research for a wide range of people, largely outside academia. Open access then meant that everyone could read it.

 

Jonathan Grant

Director of the Policy Institute @ King’s College London and Professor of Public Policy