Dr Melissa Terras: open access and the Twitter effect

Dr Melissa Terras

Dr Melissa Terras

A digital humanities scholar discovers what happens when you blog and tweet about an open access paper.


Dr Terras is a reader in electronic communication in the Department of Information Studies, University College London, and co-director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. UCL has a progressive open access policy, requiring a copy of all research outputs to be deposited in its institutional repository, UCL Discovery. In October 2011 Dr Terras decided to blog about each of her refereed papers – how the research came about, what the outcomes were, and link to the full text of the papers themselves – as she deposited them. She soon discovered an interesting effect, demonstrated by one paper in particular.

Her 2009 paper, Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation Via Amateur Digitisation (Literary and Linguistic Computing, 25 (4) 425 – 438) had been downloaded twice since she deposited it in UCL Discovery. She then blogged and tweeted about it and almost immediately saw the number of downloads rise to 140.

In a blog post a few weeks later she notes that “All in all, it’s been downloaded 535 times since it went live, from all over the world: USA (163), UK (107), Germany (14), Australia (10), Canada (10), and the long tail of beyond: Belgium, France, Ireland Netherlands, Japan, Spain, Greece, Italy, South Africa, Mexico, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Europe, UAE, ‘unknown’.” Three weeks later and, as a result of that further blog post, downloads passed the 800 mark.

By April 2012 it had been downloaded over a thousand times, and by Open Access Week 2012 it has been downloaded 1212 times. It was the 16th most downloaded paper from UCL’s repository in the final quarter of 2011, and the third most downloaded paper in UCL’s arts faculty in the past year.

While the paper is freely accessible from the UCL’s repository, it is also available behind a paywall in the closed access journal in which it was first published – Literary and Linguistic Computing. It’s popular there too – it’s the top download, in fact. But was does that mean with closed access? A grand total of 376 full text downloads in 2011.

“There have been almost 3 times that number of downloads from our institutional repository…I think its fair to say: It’s a really good thing to make your work open access. More people will read it than if it is behind a paywall. Even if it is the most downloaded paper from a journal in your field, open access makes it even more accessed,” writes Dr Terras.

But could this simply be a particularly compelling paper? To test the hypothesis that social media makes a difference, Dr Terras deposited four papers from one project, LAIRAH (Log Analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and Humanities), but only tweeted about three of them. The results?

Library and information resources and users of digital resources in the humanities: 297 downloads
Documentation and the users of digital resources in the humanities: 209 downloads
If you build it will they come? The LAIRAH study: Quantifying the use of online resources in the arts and humanities through statistical analysis of user log data: 142 downloads
The Master Builders: LAIRAH research on good practice in the construction of digital humanities projects: 12 downloads.

But to tweet open access research does not necessarily equal instant success.  Firstly, timing is important with social media, says Dr Terras. Tweet during the day when people are online, not at midnight on the weekend. The best time is between 11am and 5pm GMT, Monday to Thursday in a working week. And secondly, of course, simply tweeting links to research into a void is unlikely to produce great results. A good social media strategy takes time and commitment, it requires engagement and the building up of a digital presence. It’s not a path every academic would choose to tread.

However, what is clear is that this path would not be for any academic were it not for open access.

“Social Media’s relationship with Open Access has to be part of the continuum of research activity” says Dr Terras. “You can spend years producing a research paper, why would you not spend the time it takes to deposit it in an open access repository, and the seconds it takes to share that copy online with as many people as you possibly can”?

Author, Researcher, Social media, UK, Users, Visibility


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