Science Communication


Clickbait is all over the internet today, and increasingly it's influencing science too. It’s annoying but is there something to it that’s allowed it to become so prevalent? 

A study by Gwilym Lockwood published in The Winnower analysed titles of psychology articles and how they were written in relation to how many shares they’d had. He discovered that wordplay and bad puns in titles of scientific papers makes them more likely to be shared. In all, scientists find it just as hard to resist a snappy, clickbait-y title than the general public.

Lockwood, even started the paper with: "You'll never believe these three amazing clickbait strategies that make people share psychology articles more!”


So what is clickbait?

One key distinction to make is that Lockwood is not suggesting that clickbait is good. Only that the devices used in the titles are good at drawing attention. To be clear, clickbait is where catchy titles are bound to articles that have no real substance to them. They use well-phrased titles draw you into a bare bones article that only offers you the least content that will make you come back again.

This is not dissimilar from junk food. As Lockwood puts it: “Clickbait is the empty calories of the internet, junk food wrapped in glamorous advertising that never quite satisfies but keeps you coming back for more.” The lack of a need to produce high quality substance means that clickbait is easy to produce at a high rate. Leading to more of it ending up online.

In a previous post on our blog we have talked about the social phenomenon known as’ ‘scienceploitation’. In, brief it is when scientific studies are misrepresented. The aim usually is to get more attention to their site (website hits etc). Clickbait is scienceploitation in its most primitive form. As it turns out; scientists who you’d think are the most clued up on this topic, are not immune to this phenomenon.


What works best?

Not only is wordplay part of what makes a good title. Lockwood found that framing things positively also increases their number of shares. This backs up the findings of a previous study of titles used on the front page of the New York Times. This study found that people are more like to share an article if it was positive, and emotionally arousing.

With this in mind Lockwood and two colleagues spent a night analysing the titles of over 2100 papers published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology from 2013 and 2014. Each title was graded in accordance to 6 categories: “positive framing,” “phrasing arousal,” word play, titles that contain a question, title length, and the social relevance currently of the paper’s topic. These scores were recorded alongside each papers Altimetric Attention Score which was a paper’s number of mentions across all media forms.

As mentioned earlier on, the titles that possessed the clickbait-like features were the most mentioned. With the mean average Altimetric Attention score of all the papers being 9.92 (not a particularly high score). In conclusion, what do you need to do to get your papers more attention? Give them short titles, frame it positively and as Lockwood puts it: “…try to make your research actually interesting.” Take a leaf out of the media’s book.


Online is the top choice for science news

In a study by Pew Research Centre, 20% of their sample cited that they use the internet as their primary source for Science news and information about science. That’s 40 million people, second to television, at 41% and above print publications, at 14%. That’s a considerable number of people. If producers of clickbait are using science to draw people to their site, could this change those peoples’ views of science?

Clickbait relies on being able to offer interesting, shocking or exciting answers and possibilities to its potential audience. Those who know science understand that science is a long, slow process. A process that requires thorough investigation along with repetition and fact-checking. It is far from dramatic. So if a scientist sees something claiming to have the secret to weight loss or youthful appearance, they generally know better than to believe it and to look to mainstream media for the big breakthroughs.

The most dramatic science advances can actually be found in a newspaper, or on TV. If less-informed internet users think that these articles are actual insights into science and are consequently being let-down as a result of the alluring title being tied to a far from developed article. You’d be forgiven for suggesting people should be better than to be succumbed by these titles, but in a day where even mainstream media is misrepresenting science for their own purposes. The internet is seen as by some as a more reliable source of news.


A caution

One thing we can’t ignore is the risk of these articles dispensing information that is wrong, accidentally and intentionally. With no need to come up with any true substance, there’s nothing to stop creators writing articles and filling them with information that is out-of-date, disproven or unverified information. Even more importantly, what’s to stop these people just spreading lies. This is especially important in the case of health where google is providing answers to questions that could have serious consequences.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.