#VisualAbstract: A Revolution in Communicating Science?

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For over 400 years, 2 modes of communication have remained the primary means of disseminating and sharing ones research among colleagues. Beginning in 1684, the very first English medical journal was published, ushering in the ability to connect and share ones scientific findings on a level previously never thought possible.1 Shortly thereafter, medical societies began establishing annual conferences with research presentations and discussions, giving scientists the ability to share and discuss their work with their peers on a more personal basis. And while both of these communication methods have worked well, these centuries-old paradigms of dissemination remain ripe for disruption. Fortunately, the Internet, and its newest subsidiary Social Media, are up for the challenge. Social networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have enabled communities of scientist and physicians to connect and dialogue across both space and time. Perhaps, the most important contribution of these platforms is the flattening of the research dissemination world such that journals, authors, clinicians, and patients can all engage in conversation on research outcomes.
Recognizing this shift, medical journals began to adopt Social Media as a means to connect and share their published material on a larger scale. For example, the Annals of Surgery Twitter account, established in 2011, has posted more than 5000 tweets and has approximately 18,700 followers.2 The number of followers dwarfs the approximately 1300 print subscribers. Although social media offers opportunity, there also exists a ubiquitous challenge: In this fast-paced medium, how should journals present scientific research to an oversaturated public that is increasingly less receptive to science? Whereas journals have attempted to engage and disseminate their material on Twitter, they have failed to show any discernible improvement on article metrics.3,4 Perhaps, it is not surprising, that it took an architect-turned surgeon5 to design a new approach to scientific communication that is customized to the world of social media.
In this issue of Annals, Ibrahim et al6 describe the use of Visual Abstract as a novel strategy to improve dissemination of the journal's publications on social media. As the authors describe, Visual Abstracts are simply visual representations of the key findings of a published manuscript, or more simply put, the “movie trailer” to the manuscript. By capitalizing on the visual aesthetics of social media, Visual Abstracts allow the producer to efficiently share complex methodologies and results in a format that allows for rapid visualization and interpretation. The authors performed a prospective case-control crossover study using 44 original research articles. Each article was tweeted from the Annals of Surgery Twitter account in both the Visual Abstract format and as a title alone. Outcomes included the total number of impression, re-tweets, and article visits. Results showed that articles tweeted with a Visual Abstract had 7.7-fold increase in the number of impressions and 2.7-fold increase in article visits, compared with those tweeted with the article title only. The results of the study suggest that this format improves the dissemination and exposure of the material.
In some ways, the findings of Ibriham et al are not surprising. These results reflect what behavioral scientists have long understood: Humans process visual data better than any other type of data.7 For instance, according to research compiled by 3M—the company behind the Post-It note—visual data are processed 60,000 times faster than text and has been shown to improve learning by 400%.8 Marketing firms have recognized this fact for decades and have exploited our proclivity for visual data to sell us items or engage us in their narrative. Likewise, digital marketers have found that pages with videos and images draw, on average, 94% more views than their text-only counterparts.
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