2342 words • 10~16 min read

Sizing Sizing Ocean Giants: Patterns of #scicomm outreach in a marine megapaper

Last week, Craig McClain and many friends published Sizing Ocean Giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna, a research paper that would better be described as a monograph. The response to the paper has been overwhelming.

Since it’s publication last Tuesday, Sizing Ocean Giants has been viewed almost 44,000 times by 38,000 people and downloaded 1200 times. If this seems like a lot for what is essentially a natural history monograph, you are correct. According to Altmetric, a service that measures the non-citation impact of scientific papers, Sizing Ocean Giants is the most discussed and shared article in the history of PeerJ. With a score of 546 (most papers average a score of 5, PeerJ papers average about 20), our paper has climbed into the 99th percentile of all articles ever tracked.

We’ve been covered in the Washington Post, Newsweek, National Geographic, and Scientific American, as well as numerous non-English media outlets from Mexico to Greece. Opa!  We’ve seen a small attention spike on twitter and tons of shares (almost 12,000) via Facebook.

So how do we account for the huge success of this massive paper?

1. Universally appealing content.

This paper has something for everyone. Love whales? We’ve got whales. Giant isopods more you speed? We’ve got them, too. Are you more of a shark fan? Yup, they’re in there. How about squid? We deliver giant and colossal squid straight to you browser.

Here’s the dirty not-so-secret: not all science papers have the potential to break big in the popular media. The content has to be just right to catch the dominant social waves within your target community. This paper cast a wide net, and captured a lot of interest from diverse sources. The social impact would be hard to replicate with a single-focus study.

This, of course, makes it easy to tailor diverse, shareable content. On Deep Sea News, Craig has been republishing his favorite articles about each species involved in the paper. Over here, I’ve posted about my personal favorite (and, annoyingly, the smallest of ocean giants), the giant deep-sea isopod. We aren’t done yet, either, because the beauty of this paper is that it’s evergreen, the content is just as shareable six months from now as it is today.

2. Aggressive promotion.

We didn’t just send this paper out into the world untended. As soon as we had a publication date, we made a press plan. Craig prepared an excellent, engaging press release that was widely disseminated and all of us reached out to our media and social media contacts to let them know this was coming and provide contact info for interviews and embargo press copies. And, of course, we prepped out own content as well. When the paper finally broke, the most impactful articles were already written.

As great as it is to have a strong twitter presence as a scientist, you should never rely solely on that and you should never wait for publication day to start trying to garner interest in your research. Major media outlets plan their stories days ahead of time, so unless your research is truly earth-shattering, if you wait, you’re already fighting against the lag.

3. Social Media heavyweights.

There’s no humble way to say this. Among the sizable author list for this paper are some of biggest social media heavyweights in ocean science outreach. Me (@SFriedScientist), Craig (@DrCraigMc), Al (@AlistairDove), and Trevor (@TrevorABranch) have a combined twitter following of 23,000 (upper bound) and our newer to social media co-authors are no slouches either–@MegBalk, @ccfranklee, @QueenofMantas, @clshanche, @catherine_chenn, @lindsaycgaskins, and @rebeccarhelm.

Craig and I both command online ocean outreach empires from which we can tap into sizable audiences. That’s not a fluke, either. Authors with strong social media presence can reach a broader audience and amplify the scientific and social impacts of their research.

And while some scientist with nominal outreach experience may couch this as a cynical and crass ploy for publicity, I simply say this: If you want people to talk about your research, you should talk to people about your research. 

4. Shareable and remixable images.

gigantes2We has an infographic. It wasn’t the world’s greatest infographic, but it was good, conveyed a lot of information, and was easy to share. That, on it’s own, is a solid way to disseminate your study more wildly. What I didn’t appreciate about that infographic until it hit the web was that is was not only shareable, but easy to remix. The iconography was clean, uncluttered, and well-spaced, making it easy for venues like National Geographic or Coffee and Saturday to put their own spin on it. Now, instead of one graphic design team, we have at least 3, with each one tailoring their style to a slightly different audience.

That is awesome.

5. Open Access.

There’s no need for an extensive beating of the Open Access drum here. If you want people to read your paper, they have to be able to actually access your paper. Open access papers reach a broader audience, are downloaded more, and garner more citations when compared to their closed access peers.

As unaffiliated rogue scientists become more prevalent, that discrepancy is only going to increase.

6. Awe over fear.

We have to talk about the destruction of the ocean. We do. We have a duty as scientists, conservationists, and human beings to do everything in our power to protect what we can protect and heal what we can heal. There are a variety of ways to reach the general public, yet by far the most prevalent is the doom-and-gloom assault. Doom-and-gloom leads to Armageddon Fatigue and your audience is lost. People get tired of hearing about relentless destruction. They feel hopeless, powerless. This is the reason Upwell is pushing #OceanOptimism so heavily. It’s why Sylvia Earle focuses on Hope Spots.

And it’s why we constantly revisit the reasons we love the ocean in the first place. The oceans are full of wonders. There are giants in the deep sea. It is the last great unexplored wilderness.

Sizing Ocean Science Giants: A case study

There were two papers that came out last week the qualify as ocean giants–ocean science papers with significant social and traditional media exposure that were disseminated broadly. One was ours, Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna. The other was Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean published in Science by Doug McCauley and friends. I have not read the full Science paper, as it was not Open Access, so I can not speak to the quality of the research (though knowing co-authors Palumbi and Pinsky, I’m certain it was superb).

Please note: I’m comparing these two papers because they’re the two biggest ocean science papers of last week. I think they’re both solid, important studies, but I’m looking specifically at how these papers disseminated through the media. I’m biased. I think the Ocean Giants team did a better job, and Sizing Ocean Giants will have greater conversational endurance. Part of that is due to the evergreen nature of our study, and part of that is due to our approach. That being said, Marine defaunation did a great job promoting their paper and their Altmetric score is nothing to sneeze at.

It’s a bit tricky to compare across two journals, since things like download rate and article views are dependent on how journals present papers to the public. “Marine defaunation” achieved, as of 9 AM January 20, an Altmetric score of 473, which also puts it in the top 99th percentile of all articles measured by Altmetric. Its abstract was downloaded almost 33,000 times, while the full text was downloaded nearly 5,000 times. Since PeerJ published fulltext online rather than requiring a download, it’s hard to parse how many of our paper views translated into full reads (or for that matter, how many people actually read a downloaded article). My experience suggests that these numbers are roughly equivalent, if not skewed slightly in favor of Ocean Giants.

So what was different between these two papers?

The first and most obvious is that one is about awe and one is about doom. There’s nothing you can do about that, you research is your research and sometimes we do need to focus on doom. The doom paper represents a point in time, it lacks the evergreen quality of a megafauna mega-study. This is, of course, unfair to the Marine defaunation team, since you can’t really compare a 70-page monograph spanning 25 ocean taxa to a single Science paper and conclude that the monograph has more content. To that effect, we can also add social media heavyweights. Every scientist who wants to do outreach should build a strong online presence, but you certainly shouldn’t be picking your co-authors based on who has the most twitter followers.

It is worth noting that, over the last 7 years, McClain, Branch, Dove, and myself began our collaborations through social media thanks to many productive online discussions about marine megafauna (and many, many other topics).

Marine defaunation did do a significant, aggressive press push. I got press releases about this paper through 18 different listserves. Unfortunately, I have a general policy not to write about papers that my audience can’t access directly. Open access makes science better. The prestige of publication in the big “glamour journals” is ephemeral and declining, particularly in the marine conservation world, where stakeholders on the ground simply don’t have the resources to access these papers.

But publication in the big, restricted access, journals does come with benefits, and Science paired this paper with a beautifully illustrated timeline of defaunation. I’ve seen this image shared widely, but often decoupled from the actual study, which is a problem, as the figure itself has no explanatory text.

If I didn't tell you this was from the Marine defaunation paper, would you know what it was?

If I didn’t tell you this was from the Marine defaunation paper, would you know what it was?

Finally, when we look at the conversations across twitter for these two papers, we can see the social influence. Since “Ocean Giants” is a simple, jargon free term, I’ve used only one search term for our paper. “Marine defaunation” is a bit more mealy, so I’ve chosen that and “marine extinction”, a term I’ve seen many secondary sources use to describe this paper, to measure the twitter conversation.

giants

We can see “ocean giants” has a huge spike on publication day, with a long tail holding about 5 times higher than the pre-publication baseline. There’s a secondary rise today, as the weeklies and tertiary media sources pick up on this paper. “Marine defaunation” and “marine extinction” had a small spike on publication day (the second “marine extinction” spike was caused by a viral, save-the-dugongs, tweet unrelated to the paper). Marine defaunation has a strong rise today, likely due to a secondary round of traditional press coverage.

My finally assessment: Marine defaunation has not reached the end of its attention wave, but nor has Ocean Giants. Due to the evergreen nature of the content and awe-based subject matter, Ocean Giants will have a longer tail and will continue to accumulate low-level attention for several months after publication. In contrast, Marine defaunation will likely experience a major spike in the next week (probably larger than the initial Ocean Giants spike) but will see a rapid decline back to the baseline, with a potential secondary spike several weeks down the line when monthly media publications pick it up. Open Access would have yielded a stronger publication-day spike. An infographic more clearly linked to the paper with less cluttered images would have helped it spread further on social media. And while you shouldn’t pick your authors based of social media influence, you can certainly reach out to key influencers ahead of time to help boost the dissemination of your article.

After all, the most popular tweet about Marine defaunation came from Ocean Giants co-author Trevor Branch.


Note: these statistics are a snapshot in time (specifically, 9:02 AM EST, January 20, 2015). The act of publishing this article will change the altmetrics for both papers and alter how they disseminate through social media. 


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


Connect with SFS