Citations and media coverage

According to a press release accompanying a just-published study in PLOS ONE:

Highly cited papers also tend to receive more media attention, although the cause of the association is unclear.

One reason I can think of is a confounding factor that serves as the hidden cause of both phenomena. Discoverability matters just as much as the quality of a paper, and conventional journals implicated in the sustenance of notions like ‘prestige’ (Nature, Science, Cell, The Lancet, etc.) have been known to prefer more sensational positive results. And among researchers that still value publishing in these journals, these papers are more noticed, which leads to a ‘buzz’ that a reporter can pick up on.

Second, sensational results also easily lend themselves to sensational stories in the press, which has often been addicted to the same ‘positivity bias’ that the scientific literature harboured for many decades. In effect, highly cited papers are simply highly visible, and highly visibilised, papers – both to other scientists and journalists.

The press release continues:

The authors add: “Results from this study confirm the idea that media attention given to scientific research is strongly related to scientific citations for that same research. These results can inform scientists who are considering using popular media to increase awareness concerning their work, both within and outside the scientific community.”

I’m not sure what this comment means (I haven’t gone through the paper and it’s possible the paper’s authors discuss this in more detail), but there is already evidence that studies for which preprints are available receive more citations than those published behind a paywall. So perhaps scientists expecting more media coverage of their work should simply make their research more accessible. (It’s also a testament to the extent to which the methods of ‘conventional’ publishers – including concepts like ‘reader pays’ and the journal impact factor, accentuated by notions like ‘prestige’ – have become entrenched that this common-sensical solution is not so common sense.)

On the flip side, journalists also need to be weaned away from ‘top’ journals – I receive a significantly higher number of pitches offering to cover papers published in Nature journals – and retrained to spot interesting results published in less well-known journals as well as, on a slightly separate note, to situate the results of one study in a larger context instead of hyper-focusing on one context-limited set of results.

The work seems interesting, perhaps one of you will like to give it a comb.