The delivery of science: a study into the impact of scientific versus digital authors

By Dr Simon Leigh

To tweet or not to tweet; that is the question. With the pandemic accelerating the digital transformation process within pharma organisations, questions about how best to disseminate scientific content within our new world are of top priority.

From Medical Affairs to Public Affairs to Commercial Teams, every business function is faced with the same conundrum of how best to generate maximum share of scientific voice in a rapidly changing environment. For decades, the delivery of science to audiences has been mediated through peer-reviewed academic publications and key opinion leaders (KOLs), but in recent times the rise of digital opinion leaders (DOLs) and digital channels have given pharma pause for thought.

Many in the industry have argued the value of both approaches, but now we’ve gone one step further to demonstrate the impact of scientific versus digital authors through a new study. Here at VISFO, we prefer hard facts and evidence rather than sweeping statements. It’s good to think differently, and even better to demonstrate it.

Navigating the digital era

In recent years, social media has been embraced by the healthcare industry and healthcare providers (HCPs) alike. Offering instantaneous interaction with minimal barriers to conversation, it is a key facilitator for sharing information and ideas between practitioners and their networks, with HCPs increasingly adopting multi-channel (and often digital) approaches to discuss patient needs, share research findings and access further information on treatment strategies.

A recent study by Surani et al. (2017) demonstrated that 87.9% of HCPs are utilising social media in a professional capacity, highlighting the need for Medical Science Liaisons to be able to navigate digital landscapes to establish a more rounded understanding of real-world condition management.

With the objective of better understanding the relationship between the HCP’s research outputs and social media usage patterns, our study focused on the topic of diabetes, drawing evidence from Twitter and diabetes mellitus-related scientific publications.

Looking at a two-year time period spanning August 2018 to August 2020, we identified over 25 million global diabetes tweets and 100,000 publications which were cross-referenced to reveal approximately 3,000 HCPs who were simultaneously publishing and tweeting about diabetes management.

Who’s doing the talking?

Across the select group of HCPs, we identified 110,346 tweets in comparison to only 34,000 publications over the same period – that’s three times the amount of content published digitally.

Equal levels of digital activity were exhibited by KOLs (publishing 1–2, 3–4 and 5+ publications) and those with a lower bibliometric output (fewer than one manuscript per month), demonstrating that the number of publications attributed to HCPs has no significant link to digital activity level, contrary to the expectations of many.

Our research also investigated the relationship between author seniority and Twitter output. Interestingly, those with a greater share of first or last authorships (a traditional signifier of research authority) were significantly less likely to publish digital content than less established scientific authors with more limited publishing networks.

‘Stick to what you know’ appears to be the mantra for authors who have published manuscripts on specific themes including insulin, health outcomes and paediatrics. These individuals were significantly more likely to tweet about their specialty subjects and share relevant insights with their network.

Sharing is caring

We found no correlation between academic seniority and earned Twitter engagement. Those with the most first and last authorships and those most prolific in publishing received no more engagement from their networks on Twitter in comparison to less decorated or established authors, in the form of comments or shares.

In contrast, Twitter follower counts have been proven to serve as excellent predictors of content engagement. Our research shows that HCPs with the greatest number of followers not only had a significantly higher likelihood of publishing diabetes-related tweets, but were also much more likely to have their content commented upon and shared by others in the diabetic scientific community.

So what does this mean?

Our findings are incredibly useful for pharma companies who want to level-up their digital strategy and target HCPs that are making the greatest contributions in their respective fields. Those looking to communicate scientific content should consider going beyond the 'high-impact' well-known academic experts and, instead, consider the impact of lesser-known DOLs with smaller publishing networks. Specialising in the delivery of highly specific content tailored to attract the attention and engagement of their captive audiences, the impact of DOLs in the Twittersphere is invaluable.

With stakeholders predicting that the number of HCPs in the digital landscape will continue to rise for years to come, it is vital that pharma organisations equip themselves with the ability to navigate multiple channels in their engagement strategies to stay ahead of the game.

In a nutshell

  • Healthcare providers are increasingly using multiple channels (including digital channels) to discuss unmet needs, treatment strategies and share research, and are no longer limited to the peer-reviewed scientific journals and symposia of old.
  • We identified all global diabetes tweets (25 million) over a two-year period, in addition to all scientific publications over the same period (~100,000) and cross referenced the two, finding ~3,000 HCPs who were both publishing and tweeting about the management of diabetes.
  • These HCPs delivered 110,346 tweets, compared to just 34,000 publications over the same period.
  • Those with a greater share of first or last authorships were less likely to tweet about the management of diabetes, while those with the greatest number of co-authors were significantly less likely to publish digital content than less established scientific authors.
  • Those who published manuscripts on specific themes including insulin, health outcomes and paediatrics, were significantly more likely to tweet about these themes as well.
  • The findings clearly demonstrate that those who are most academically active within diabetes are also highly engaged with promoting and absorbing scientific content digitally.
  • Those looking to promote, monitor or learn from digital scientific content, should consider looking beyond “high-impact” known academic experts, to lesser-known DOLs with smaller networks, who are likely to specialise in the delivery of highly specific content to captive audiences.

Interested in learning more about the topics mentioned above and discovering how VISFO can help you level-up your KOL & DOL strategy? Get in touch at

Blog author(s)

Dr Simon Leigh

Director of Research & Insights