Interview with Professor Diana Hicks

Why are academics referencing The New York Times? How are dentists learning about research relevant to their practices? What does the number of tweets and retweets a scientific article receives say about its value?

This kind of information is largely invisible to those of us who are analyzing how research gets out into the community, but we really need to understand it more , says Diana Hicks. Data demonstrating that someone’s work is covered in the news and in social media can show that their research is having an impact outside academia. This is the area I like to pursue.

Hicks and colleagues received a grant from the US National Institutes of Health to investigate how research gets to dental practitioners – professionals who are not usually connected to academia but who need to keep abreast of what’s happening in their field. For a recent study, the team looked at trade magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media output relevant to dentistry. They found that practicing dentists and hygienists do in fact use social media to share clinical information and research findings, suggesting a changing mode of information diffusion in dentistry .

When I dig into the social impact of research , Hicks says, I get excited to see how the world is changing, and the insights these numbers outside of peer-reviewed publications may give us into how people are thinking and what they’re doing .

Nonetheless, it’s not yet clear how to measure the quality of that output. In another study, appropriately titled, The unbearable emptiness of tweeting – about journal articles , Hicks and colleagues state, The ideal that tweeting about scholarly articles represents curating and informing about state-of-the-art appears not to be realized in practice . Instead, Hicks says, we found that people often are behaving like robots, hitting ‘re-tweet’ mindlessly. When we really dug into it, there was nothing there but numbers .

Hicks notes that her group’s work with tweets is very much in keeping with the mission of the ICSR Advisory Board. I look forward to delving more deeply into what people are counting and trying to develop indicators that are meaningful and substantive, that say something useful and don’t create injustices. In effect, it’s a way of continuing the work of the Leiden Manifesto for research metrics, (of which Hicks was lead author) – going beyond ‘impact-factor obsession’ to cultivate a thoughtful approach to how we apply indicators in research assessment.

I know there’s enduring interest in this issue globally because traffic to our Leiden Manifesto website has held up over time, and we keep getting new translations , she says. This clearly touched a nerve and it’s a concern around the world -- guidance for high quality application of metrics research assessment. The ICSR represents one more avenue for pursuing this goal.

Portrait of dr. Diana Hicks

Diana Hicks is Professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2018, she was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for distinguished contributions to the evaluation of national and international research and development enterprises, and for outstanding leadership in science and technology policy education. She earned her PhD in science policy research at the University of Sussex, UK.