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Your Twitter followers and Facebook friends won’t read your peer-reviewed article if they have to pay for it, and neither will strangers

Here’s the paper I’m giving today at the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles at the panel “The Open Professoriat: Public Intellectuals on the Social Web.” You can see the slides on Google Docs and embedded below; the text of the talk (also given below) is in the speaker notes.

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The question before today’s panel is “Can social media help broaden the audience for academic work?” I’m going to talk about a more specific version of this question, namely, “Can Twitter and Facebook help earn more readers for peer-reviewed articles?”

The answer is “Yes, but those readers will not pay to read peer-reviewed articles.”

In December of 2010, I tweeted a link to a PDF of an article from the recently published proceedings of the 2010 meeting of the American Society of Information Science and Technology titled “How and Why Scholars Cite on Twitter.” It was one of my most clicked-on links for the year, with 118 views—many of the links I tweet to news articles and so on get only thirty or so clicks. The authors studied a sample of 46,515 tweets from twenty-eight scholars — seven scientists, fourteen social scientists, and seven humanists — and reported that “In our sample of tweets containing hyperlinks, 6% were citations. Of these, 52% were first-order links and 48% were second-order.” By this, they meant that 52% of the links went directly to peer-reviewed work, while 48% were links that went to non-peer-reviewed work about peer-reviewed work: blog posts and news articles, for instance.

One of the main reasons that scholars tweeted these “second-order” links was that they worked for everyone: “[S]cholars may prefer to link directly to the article when it is open access but will resort to second-order links to bypass paywall restrictions. Participants were attracted to open-access articles for Twitter citations; Ben said ‘I would certainly be much more likely to link to things if they were more readily available.’ ”

This article doesn’t study who exactly was clicking on the links the scholars tweeted, although it does report that scholars regarded Twitter as a way to share information with members of their discipline. Certainly this is one of the chief things I use Twitter for, myself: sharing and acquiring information from my colleagues in the digital humanities. In July of 2010, however, I used Twitter for a slightly different purpose: to let members of my network know that a peer-reviewed article of my own had just appeared: “The Summer 2010 issue of *Victorian Poetry* with my article ‘Edmund Gosse and the Villanelle Blunder’ in it is out,” I wrote, and included a link to the article’s landing page in Project Muse. Several friends, scholars themselves in entirely different fields, replied with congratulations on Twitter: one at least showed that she had read at least a little of the article, because she mentioned a word I used in the first paragraph. And one complete stranger, a follower named Robert Withers, wrote that he couldn’t “find Victorian Poetry on his local newsstand,” with what degree of seriousness I simply don’t know. I replied with a link to my (openly available) dissertation, on which the article draws, and we had a short exchange about poetic form.

I feed my Twitter updates to Facebook, and so my Facebook friends saw the tweet as well. There, two friends, one an anthropologist in Aberdeen and one a poet in New England, also expressed interest and congratulations: my friend Alex the anthropologist, however, complained that his university didn’t subscribe to the journal and that he therefore wouldn’t be able to read the article.

So this is six people, five of them my friends. Hardly earth- or academy-shattering. But of that small sample, two were not scholars, and they are terrific examples of a broader audience for peer-reviewed scholarly work. I haven’t spoken to my friend Leigh Palmer the New England poet in person for years, and I would never have thought to (say) e-mail her my article, but as you can see, she was very interested in and engaged with what I wrote. Robert Withers is a stranger to me, but I looked him up for this piece and discovered that he is an independent filmmaker by trade; he was interested in the article for its own sake, but could not read it because it was behind a paywall. The “broader audience” that is indeed reachable via Twitter and Facebook was in this case halved because the article is not openly available. I might mention, too, that when the article was accepted by Victorian Poetry, I negotiated with them to be allowed to post the article openly online, but I did not gain that right.

The audience for an article on Edmund Gosse and the villanelle, of course, is small to begin with – the link that appeared on Twitter and Facebook was clicked on only twenty-four times. How many people might be reading the article through Project Muse or in print, of course, I do not know and have no way of telling: my article is as yet uncited (unsurprisingly, given how recent it is) by anyone else writing about the villanelle or a related scholarly topic. But it’s also clearly the case that Twitter and Facebook can indeed help earn more readers for peer-reviewed articles, as long as those articles are openly and freely available on the web.

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