Blog | Thursday, December 11, 2014

Randomized controlled trials, social media and "intention to tweet"


I have to hand it to cardiologists. For years they have created the most innovative and fun names for trials that are conducted. As a generalist, I still remember the DIG trial from way back when, or the RALES trial, sometimes referencing names of trials when discussed medications for common conditions such as heart failure. As therapy evolves, we get a PARADIGM-HF shift, some might say!

Today, I was sent a tweet about a fascinating trial, the “Intention to Tweet“ trial (hats off again to our cardiology colleagues: TNOTY (Trial Name of the Year). This trial was a randomized trial of social media to see the impact of social media on views of articles within 1 journal, Circulation. In the intervention group, they tweeted out links to half of the articles, and a link to the Facebook page. In the control group, no tweets were sent. Kudos to Lee Aase for a wonderful review of what was done in the study, and what it might mean for the future.

Essentially, what the authors found was that there was no difference in clicks between the articles which had tweets sent/Facebook page links, and those which did not. Some might refer to this as a “negative trial.” I think that, in medicine, we need to see results of “negative trials” that show something was ineffective or not better than “usual care”, just like we need to see results that demonstrate a positive effect of an intervention.

But here is the clincher for this: I have seen several tweets from physicians and other scientists who are meaningful users of social media who are questioning the results or the design of the trial. Some might interpret this as a “defeat” for social media.

Looking on the Altmetrics page for this particular article, however, paints a different picture. Recall that this article was announced and sent out the same day as an early release article. The Altmetrics description for this article puts it at the 92nd percentile of all articles within this Circulation journal. It is in the 94th percentile for all articles of a similar age. 94th percentile! That is pretty awesome! Compared with other articles of a similar age in this journal Circulation, it ranks 2nd, in the 85th percentile. Again, this article came out the same day.

So here is the kicker. This article on social media, based on these Altmetrics data, has “gone viral” on social media (at least compared with other articles from this same journal), and is ranked quite favorably in one metric used to gauge social media impact (that metric being “Altmetrics”). I think that suggests exactly the opposite of what the conclusion did (meaning that dissemination of this article via social media made it quite a favorable article), which could be interpreted as “social media does have an impact on readership of journal articles. See this screenshot from Altmetrics from 10:30 pm EST on 11/19/14.

I applaud the authors for developing such a trial and Circulation for having social media editors in the first place. Those of us who “believe” in the power of social media to teach, to learn and to advocate appreciate the scientific principles which went into creating this trial. I do agree with 1 sentence in the conclusion that “further research is necessary to understand and quantify the ways in which social media can increase the impact of research”.

This article is a wonderful first step towards understanding these concepts, and provides a meaningful way to understand how to consider the impact. As a social media editor for a journal myself (Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions), I plan to reference this article and use it in descriptions of how social media can impact journals, and ultimately, patient health and outcomes.

Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. This post originally appeared at Mired in MedEd, where he blogs about medical education.