Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

When Retroviral Research Goes Viral

The PLOS Pathogens team reflects on their most widely shared article and the benefits and pitfalls of sharing science research on social media.

Image credit: Pixabay

Social media has taken the science world by storm. Or maybe it’s the other way around; but regardless, if you are reading this, you are likely a scientist engaging in social media (this is a science blog). Scientists are participating in all types of social media— blogs, Facebook, Twitter, reddit, Tumblr, Flipboard — showing that science discourse is not limited to conference rooms and laboratories.

Prominent and famous scientists from the Nobel prize winning climatologist Dr. Michael Mann to television-show sensation Bill Nye use social media (see famous scientists on Twitter at Business Insider as well as  scientists on the reddit Ask Me Anything Series). However, social media isn’t just for Principle Investigators in the public eye or distinguished science journalists. Scientists in any field can and are using social media on a daily, even hourly, basis— just check out Vincent Racaniello, the host of the TWiV podcast and an active twitter user. PLOS Biology has even published An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists instructing scientists why and how to showcase their research using social media and PLOS Computational Biology more recently published Ten Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific Conferences.

With social media taking such a front-line role in the rapid dissemination of science, it is important to keep tabs of individual papers and track their diffusion across the internet. Given the wide range of forums for sharing research findings, this can seem unwieldy and confusing. However, PLOS’ Article Level Metrics (ALMs) is a tool that allows authors to do just that. With ALM Reports, authors can not only track a paper’s citations, views, and downloads, but also its social media visibility and legacy, all in one place!

Take the PLOS Pathogens research article, Highly Significant Antiviral Activity of HIV-1 LTR-Specific Tre-Recombinase in Humanized Mice, published in September 2013. The article postulates that that Tre-Recombinase, an enzyme engineered to excise integrated HIV from host cell chromosomes, shows promise as a component of a future therapy that aims at HIV eradication.

An RGB display of the 24-color SKY (spectral karyotyping) hybridization of a representative normal metaphase isolated from primary human CD4+ T cells overexpressing Tre for 21 days. Image credit: Hauber et al. (2014)
An RGB display of the 24-color SKY (spectral karyotyping) hybridization of a representative normal metaphase isolated from primary human CD4+ T cells overexpressing Tre for 21 days. Image credit: Hauber et al. (2014)

On World AIDS Day, December 1, 2013, this paper was posted on reddit Science, a anonymized social-networking service hosting conversations on science and medicine. Within hours, the paper’s views jumped from about 2,500 to 186,831, trumping other PLOS Pathogens most viewed papers by almost 150,000. As of September 10th, the paper by Hauber et al. stands at 199,868 total views (the most viewed PLOS Pathogens paper and the 7th most-viewed paper in the entire PLOS corpus), and 3,340 social media shares. The Hauber et al. reddit science discussion includes over 600 comments, featuring a lively discussion from researchers and students commenting on the findings and validity of the paper, to patients expressing their gratitude to scientists who research in this field.

ALM data from Hauber et al. Image credit: PLOS ALMs

PLOS ALMs has made it possible to track the course of this paper and gather insights from its reception in the media and from the general public and scientific community. The Hauber et al. ALMs capture the different audiences that accessed this paper over time. For example, the 1,955 PDF downloads and 34 Mendeley shares are most likely from scientists, who plan to save the article and use it for future reference. The 3,136 Facebook shares and 204 tweets may be from a mixed audience of both the general public interested in HIV research and scientists who engage in social media. And taking ALMs a step further, we can even see that this paper annotates a Wikipedia entry on Tre-recombinase.

Advocating for pathogens research recognition and funding through public education and accurate reporting is a high-priority for the PLOS Pathogens community. However, it is important to ensure that while we strive to make science openly accessible to the public through social media and the press, that we don’t overinflate results. Dr. Hauber remains wary of the potential to lose control of research ideas as they spread through traditional, as well as social, media. He reminds us that this research did not find the cure for HIV, but that the “data support the notion that Tre-recombinase technology can be a valuable component of such a multi-tiered strategy to treat HIV-infected patients.” It is important that anyone reading or commenting on primary research remember that while social media can quickly disseminate new scientific findings, the process of sharing results and participating in thoughtful discussions can help science to remain funded, progress, and bring us that much closer to solving those research questions that still exist.


lil1Lily Berrin grew up in northern California, leaving for Los Angeles to pursue a B.A. from Occidental College in Cognitive Science (with a neuroscience emphasis) and Spanish.  After dabbling in research, she realized science communication was more her thing and landed a job at PLOS, working as a Senior Publications Assistant for PLOS Pathogens. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Back to top