legal journalsThere’s no question that social media is having a significant impact on science per an article in Forbes by Haydn Shaughnessy (@haydn1701) entitled ‘How Could Twitter Influence Science.’

The bottom line is simple: articles that many people tweeted about were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than those who few people tweeted about. Its implications are even more interesting. It generally takes months and years for papers to be cited by other scientific publications. Thus, on the day an article comes out, it would seem to be difficult to tell whether it will have a real impact on a given field. However, because the majority of tweets about journal articles occur within the first two days of publication, we now have an early signal about which research is likely to be significant.

The relationship is not even marginal. 11x more likely is a huge influence. The research appeared in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and was conducted by its editor Gunther Eysenbach.

There has been some push back on the study because some tweets from scientists and publishers were sent out automatically, without human interaction. People have also argued that certain works tweeted about were not peer reviewed.

But the BMJ Group, publishers of the British Medical Journal, nails the bottom line:

Whether or not you agree with the validity of Eysenbach’s study, the very fact that it has been published and discussed so widely is surely a testament to the increasing importance of social metrics in evaluating article impact.

Like science, we’re hearing in the law, “But these blogs and open source articles published on line are not peer reviewed.” To which Shaughnessy responds as to science in way which applies equally to the law:

Peer-review has served scholarship well, but is beginning to show its age. It is slow, encourages conventionality, and fails to hold reviewers accountable. Moreover, given that most papers are eventually published somewhere, peer-review fails to limit the volume of research.

As scholars migrate their publication to the web, and publish earlier, the web offers a better way to filter science or as Altmetrics (project set up to discuss the post-peer review environment) puts it: “Instead of waiting months for two opinions, an article’s impact might be assessed by thousands of conversations and bookmarks in a week.”

Two take aways for me as to attorneys and our legal profession.

One, get involved in social media beyond your blog. If you build up social media equity on Twitter by sharing niche news and commentary other than your own, you’ll build up a significant number of loyal followers. When you post to your blog, your articles will then be widely shared on Twitter.

You’ll then get cited in blogs, news sites, and publications. Just ask lawyers who blog well. Getting cited on-line as an attorney is highly influential. In time you’ll be viewed as a subject matter expert and sought out as a reliable and trusted authority in niche areas of the law.

Two, doesn’t what Shaughnessy points out regarding science and social media apply to legal scholarship?

  • We are creating knowledge in new ways but have a philosophy of science modeled on a pre-web way of working; we still tend to think of science and any rigorous thinking as an object that we collectively cultivate and grow. I wonder if this is a useful analogy any longer.
  • Eysenbach’s research may be a useful early indicator of how social is changing science publishing but also a lesson for the wider community of opinion formers that opinion forming is itself changing and we need to understand its more fluid nature
  • What we know will change. For decades it has mattered where you publish and peer review has been a brake on some innovative perspectives. It has tended to defend established viewpoints. The possibility is that new interpretations of experience can evolve and evolve rapidly. It needs a new philosophy of knowledge.

Though I am on the periphery of legal scholarship no longer practicing law and having never been smart enough to pen law review articles, I think I see enough of what’s going on in legal publishing to comment intelligently.

We do have pockets of legal scholars advancing the law through blogging and real time publishing. We also have a limited number of our endowed law professors citing the now on-line published legal commentary of practicing lawyers. The Volokh Conspiracy and some the blogs listed at Paul Caron’s site, Law Professor Blogs come to mind.

But by and large, law schools and the large legal publishers (LexisNexis, Wolters Kluwer, Thomson Reuters) remain focused on peer reviewed and edited legal work.

Expect to see big change. Like open source software, you cannot hold back what comes naturally to smart people.

In the law that means open source publishing. As a practicing attorney you have a wonderful opportunity to jump in.