Local chatter or international buzz? Language differences on posts about Zika research on Twitter and Facebook

Germana Barata, Kenneth Shores, Juan Pablo Alperin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background When the Zika virus outbreak became a global health emergency in early 2016, the scientific community responded with an increased output of Zika-related research. This upsurge in research naturally made its way into academic journals along with editorials, news, and reports. However, it is not yet known how or whether these scholarly communications were distributed to the populations most affected by Zika. Methodology/Principal findings To understand how scientific outputs about Zika reached global and local audiences, we collected Tweets and Facebook posts that linked to Zika-related research in the first six months of 2016. Using a language detection algorithm, we found that up to 90% of Twitter and 76% of Facebook posts are in English. However, when none of the authors of the scholarly article are from English-speaking countries, posts on both social media are less likely to be in English. The effect is most pronounced on Facebook, where the likelihood of posting in English is between 11 and 16% lower when none of the authors are from English-speaking countries, as compared to when some or all are. Similarly, posts about papers written with a Brazilian author are 13% more likely to be in Portuguese on Facebook than when made on Twitter. Conclusions/Significance Our main conclusion is that scholarly communication on Twitter and Facebook of Zika-related research is dominated by English, despite Brazil being the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. This result suggests that scholarly findings about the Zika virus are unlikely to be distributed directly to relevant populations through these popular online mediums. Nevertheless, there are differences between platforms. Compared to Twitter, scholarly communication on Facebook is more likely to be in the language of an author’s country. The Zika outbreak provides a useful case-study for understanding how scientific outputs are communicated to relevant populations. Our results suggest that Facebook is a more effective channel than Twitter, if communication is desired to be in the native language of the affected country. Further research should explore how local media—such as governmental websites, newspapers and magazines, as well as television and radio—disseminate scholarly publication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0190482
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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