Using Twitter to Keep Up to Date With the Medical Literature

The medical literature is huge and growing at an explosive rate. According to a 2010 study, there were 75 clinical trials and 11 systematic reviews being published every day. In a couple of quick Pubmed searches I found 17571 papers published with “clinical trials” and 7974 with “primary care” in the title or abstract in 2013 alone. With these kinds of numbers, the prospect of keeping on top of the new publications in even a relatively small subset of this literature seems daunting to say the least. Even two weeks of annual leave would mean you have potentially hundreds of papers to plough through! Wouldn’t it be good to have some kind of real-time feed of papers in your research area that you could check on a regular basis and quickly scan for anything that is directly relevant or interesting?

It turns out that twitter is an excellent tool to do just that. Without any specialist knowledge or programming, you can quickly set up a ‘twitterbot’ that give links to the results from any Pubmed search along with the article titles. You could get Pubmed to send digest emails with the same information, but this can soon clutter up your inbox and is difficult to properly and efficiently archive. A twitter feed is easily scanned through and doesn’t feel intrusive or unwieldy.

I set up a twitterbot for articles in my field (electronic medical record research) in February. Since then, @EMR_research has already indexed over 230 papers. Going through all of these titles at once it would have been a pretty tedious affair but now I can just check the feed every day or so over a coffee and very quickly determine which ones are worth reading or bookmarking. Casey Bergman, a researcher in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, who set up one of the earliest academic twitterbots (for Drosophila_ research) puts it like this:

It is relatively easy to keep up on a daily basis with what is being published, but it’s virtually impossible to catch up when you let the river of information flow for too long.

One of the further benefits of hosting academic search feeds on twitter is that they are available for others to see too. So one person can set up a feed and their whole research group has access to it. In addition, a feed can become a resource hub for researchers and other interested parties in that area. Since I set up @EMR_research in February, the page has had follows, retweets and favourites from epidemiologists, clinicians, statisticians, medication information services, patient interest groups, healthcare startups and research councils.

According to this list, there are already over 30 twitterbots indexing scientific literature over a range of disciplines from neuroscience, cell biology, parasitology to evolutionary ecology. Having access to a small network of feeds over several closely related disciplines to cross reference would be immensely helpful in keeping up with the literature and forming the basis of systematic reviews. Health researchers may frequently find themselves hopping between projects in different research areas – one day diabetes, the next cardiovascular disease, the next mental health – and having an easily accessible feed to the most recent literature for each would be invaluable.

Setting up a twitter feed for publications in your research area is easy. You just need a twitter account and a free account with dlvr.it, a content sharing service. See these two posts for detailed instructions on how to set up your own feed.

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