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Research that makes an impact

A Twitter chat with Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von Schantz

Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von SchantzIn our latest Twitter chat we talked to Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von Schantz, authors of a paper which has received a very impressive level of attention this year.

Their article, published in April in Chronobiology International, has featured over 200 times in the news media and has been frequently discussed on social media. So much so that it’s made the Altmetric Top 100, a list of the most talked about research of 2018.

During the chat we found out more about their research, which examines the potential health risks to people that have a preference of going to bed late. We also asked about why the article has received so much attention and how Kristen and Malcolm have helped to raise awareness about their work.

Missed the chat?

If you weren’t able to join us for the live chat you can still catch up on what was discussed below or read the Twitter Moment.

You can also read the full open access research article here: ‘Associations between chronotype, morbidity and mortality in the UK Biobank cohort‘.

 

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T&F Author Services (AS): Firstly, many thanks for being happy to answer our questions today. Could you please introduce yourselves – what’s your role and where are you based?

Kristen Knutson (KK): I am an Associate Professor in the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago USA.

Malcolm von Schantz (MvS): I am Professor of Chronobiology at the University of Surrey, UK

AS: We’re particularly interested today in the article you published in April in Chronobiology International. Could you please tell us a bit about what the article covers? 

KK: We used a large UK study (>1/2 million people ≥35 y old) to examine associations between “chronotype” and health, including risk of death over ~6.5y. Those who identified as “night owls” had more health problems and ~10% increased risk of death over this period.

MvS: “Chronotype” is a way of describing to what extent you are a morning or an evening person or somewhere in between. Usually in our research, we use more complex questionnaire for this. But in the UK Biobank study, it was a single, self-rated question

KK: In this study about 9% identified as definite evening types or “night owls” and ~1/4 were definite morning types (or “larks”)

AS: The article has achieved considerable impact, which has led to it reaching the Altmetric Top 100 for 2018. Why do you think it has attracted so much attention?

KK: One reason is it is the first study to look at chronotype and mortality risk. Finally, choosing open access was important for everyone to be able to read about the study. Also, I think a lot of journalists are night owls!

MvS: In part because it is something we can all relate to — everybody is somewhere on the chronotype scale between larks and owls. But also because it reveals an important public health issue: The risks of forcing owls to live in a world designed for larks

AS: You mention that the article was published open access. Why did you choose this publishing option? 

KK: Open access is important because it gets the science to the public and not just to people with access to the journal. Open Access definitely contributed to the reach this paper had.

MvS: It really ought to be the default option for all research, so that the public who funds us can read it. Unfortunately, it is dependent on resources as lot of the time. But we particularly felt that the significance and impact of this article warranted open access.

AS: There was also a press release distributed about the findings in your paper. How did the idea for that come about and how was it organized? 

KK: The press release & media contact were a coordinated effort between university relations at Northwestern University, press office at the University of Surrey and the publisher. And Dr. von Schantz and me as well, of course! We have experts at our institutions who help to write press releases, which is particularly helpful for those of us mainly used to writing scientific articles.

MvS: When a paper has been accepted, I always consider whether it is newsworthy. In this case, we had no doubt. Working on a joint press release with two authors and two communications offices was complicated, but we got to an agreed product in the end!

AS: Is there anything else you or your institution did to help raise awareness about the paper?

MvS: Over the years, I have developed contacts with a few excellent science journalists, so I took the opportunity to send them our press release and offer them some comments if they were interested

KK: At Northwestern, the university relations office distributed the press release to the media and organized interviews.

AS: Did you expect your research to generate so much interest and what has been the most surprising coverage it’s received?

KK: The amount of coverage was greater than I expected. I think the most surprising was Saturday Night Live weekend update. Second was a question on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.

MvS: I was at a conference in Washington DC on the day the paper was published. Whilst I was waiting for my flight, the BBC rang to arrange a TV interview the next morning, so I was whisked from Heathrow to New Broadcasting House. Fortunately I had a clean shirt in my bag!

We knew it would generate impact, and indeed we first tried to interested a couple of higher-impact journals in it — but that’s always a lottery. So in the end we decided to go with the leading journal within our particular field.

We knew it would attract interest, and we knew that open access would help. But I don’t think we expected quite so much interest. After just a few weeks, it had more downloads than the previous four most downloaded papers of the journal put together. As of today, it’s got 35,165 downloads from the publisher’s website, which is quite impressive. If you want to be the 35,166th reader, it’s available here.

AS: Are there any challenges that have come with authoring a paper which has received such wide attention?

KK: Media coverage is a excellent way to get the results to the public, however, all those interviews take time. I didn’t get much else done in the week or two following publication. (But I’m not complaining!)

MvS: Definitely, yes. It’s very difficult, in the brief format of media coverage, to get all the subtleties of your message across. The most important thing which tends to get lost is that we don’t believe that being an evening type per se increases the risk of dying. What we think is more likely is that evening types having to get up early every morning, just like the morning types, even if they can’t fall asleep until late, adds to the risk. But it’s also important to note that the added risk is much smaller than many other risk factors, some of which are easier to modify. But there are also tricks for owls to manipulate their body clock to help them be more lark-like.

KK: Good point! The increased mortality risk could be partly due to mismatch between internal body clocks and external world. The problem may lie with a night owl trying to live in a morning lark world.

AS: Given what you say about the media, how accurate has the coverage of your research been?

MvS: I think it’s fair to say that Saturday Night Live’s interpretation was a tad extreme. But seriously, one is quite anxious as a scientist talking to the media, because it is quite easy to misspeak or say something that can be misinterpreted. But you gain in experience (and there is one particular tabloid which I had already learn never to speak to again).

KK: Coverage has been fairly accurate. One inaccuracy I saw was stating that our findings were that “going to bed later” was associated with mortality. Actually, these are people who may prefer to go to bed later, but we don’t know when they actually went to bed.

MvS: I thought the worst take was some media coverage which suggested that you needed to get up early to get a longer life. It’s actually quite the opposite — if you are an evening type who falls asleep late, you should ideally sleep in late as well.

AS: Finally, what have you learnt from the success this paper has had in terms of impact and attention? Is there anything you will be sure to do again as a result?

KK: Whenever I can afford it, I will opt for open access for my publications. Also, if I have a publication that I think may be of interest to media & the public, I will again work with university relations to prepare a press release.

MvS: Definitely pay careful attention to the writing of the press release, and when it is released (Kristen’s university released it earlier than mine, and that probably helped with US media coverage). Also, whilst every scientist wants to get their papers published in the most famous journals, these are hugely competitive, and this experience has taught me to be more relaxed about that. If the story of your paper is strong enough, it will have impact even if it’s not published in the highest-impact journals.

AS: Many thanks to Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von Schantz for your time and sharing those experiences. For more advice about how to maximise the impact of your research, register for the weekly Taylor & Francis Insights newsletter.