Juliet Dobson: MSF scientific day 2013—how can we measure the impact of research?

Juliet DobsonHow can we measure the impact of research? What is impact, and how can we show that research leads to measurable outcomes for patients? On 10 May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) held their annual scientific day, and the focus of the day was to try and answer some of these questions. There was also a focus on the role that technology and social media can play in measuring the impact of research.

The impact of social media on health was addressed by Shona Horter, who presented the results of a study she conducted with her colleagues at MSF, looking at the role that blogging can have in helping patients with multi drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) share their experiences. They set up a blog and selected patients to take part in writing about living with MDR-TB. The blog received more than 50, 000 visits in the eight months up to September 2012.

According to the research, patients found that blogging about the experience of living with, and undergoing treatment for MDR-TB was useful for adherence as it provided them with emotional and peer support. The bloggers felt that they were providing an example to other patients and therefore were more inclined to continue with their treatment. It also reduced feelings of isolation and helped MSF staff understand the issues faced by their patients better. The blog provided a potential way of overcoming stigma associated with the illness as participants felt that they could express themselves better in writing because it reduced the fear of judgement compared with talking about their experience.

The researchers concluded that there was no harm associated with blogging, and they said there was potential for the blog to empower people with TB through communication and social mobilisation. The research was conducted with only a small sample of 13 bloggers; however, the feeling is that these positive results are encouraging and suggest that there is a role for social media in health.

The wider question of how to measure the impact of research was discussed in a panel session. Virginia Barbour, chief editor and editorial director of PLOS, spoke about objectively measuring the impact of research. She said that PLOS provides metrics for its papers, such as the number of downloads, citations, and Twitter activity. The combination of all these metrics gives a proper snapshot of impact. This mirrors what we do at the BMJ. There are article metrics provided for all papers showing the number of visits for the paper per month, as well as Twitter and Facebook icons showing the number of times a paper has been tweeted and liked.

Virginia Barbour highlighted just how strikingly Facebook and Twitter have made a difference to sharing research. She said that 10% of PLOS papers published in the past decade have been tweeted, and very few have been shared/liked on Facebook. However, compare this with papers published in the past six months, where 100% of papers have been tweeted, and 81% have been shared on Facebook, and you can see what an impact social media now has on promoting and sharing research.

But social media can only really have a role if the papers appear in open access journals. Barbour stressed the importance of publishing in open access journals, and said that MSF are soon to launch an open access policy.

Other ways that were discussed for MSF to measure the impact of their research is to see how many of their studies have had an influence on health policy or clinical practice, or how MSF teams working in the field have gained a place at policy making tables owing to the networks and connections that they have built.

The day showcased a wide variety of the research that MSF does, and included many highlights such as a keynote speech by Hans Rosling. It also managed to reach a much wider audience than only the people attending the event in person in London, as the whole event was live streamed. Last year nearly 1000 people, based in 68 countries watched the event online. This year it was great to hear questions sent in via the live feed and also from participants taking part via Twitter. It felt really social and engaged and showed just how social media is helping to increase the impact of research worldwide. You can also catch-up on all the talks online from today until the end of August 2013, and keep in touch with the work that MSF is doing via their blogs on bmj.com.

Juliet Dobson is a web editor and blogs editor, BMJ.