Twitter’s new data fees leave scientists scrambling for funding – or cutting research

Twitter is ending free access to its application programming interface, or API. An API serves as a software “middleman” allowing two applications to talk to each other. An API is an accessible way to collect and share data within and across organizations. For example, researchers at universities unaffiliated with Twitter can collect tweets and other data from Twitter through their API.

Starting Feb. 9, 2023, those wanting access to Twitter’s API will have to pay. The company is looking for ways to increase revenue to reverse its financial slide, and Elon Musk claimed that the API has been abused by scammers. This cost is likely to hinder the research community that relies on the Twitter API as a data source.

The Twitter API launched in 2006, allowing those outside of Twitter access to tweets and corresponding metadata, information about each tweet such as who sent it and when and how many people liked and retweeted it. Tweets and metadata can be used to understand topics of conversation and how those conversations are “liked” and shared on the platform and by whom.

As a scientist and director of a research lab focused on collecting and analyzing posts from social media platforms, I have relied on the Twitter API to collect tweets pertinent to public health for over a decade. My team has collected more than 80 million observations over the past decade, publishing dozens of papers on topics from adolescents’ use of e-cigarettes to misinformation about COVID-19.

Twitter has announced that it will allow bots that it deems provide beneficial content to continue unpaid access to the API, and that the company will offer a “paid basic tier,” but it’s unclear whether those will be helpful to researchers.

Blocking out and narrowing down

Twitter is a social media platform that hosts interesting conversations across a variety of topics. As a result of free access to the Twitter API, researchers have followed these conversations to try to better understand public attitudes and behaviors. I’ve treated Twitter as a massive focus group where observations – tweets – can be collected in near real time at relatively low cost.

The Twitter API has allowed me and other researchers to study topics of importance to society. Fees are likely to narrow the field of researchers who can conduct this work, and narrow the scope of some projects that can continue. The Coalition for Independent Technology Research issued a statement calling on Twitter to maintain free access to its API for researchers. Charging for access to the API “will disrupt critical projects from thousands of journalists, academics and civil society actors worldwide who study some of the most important issues impacting our societies today,” the coalition wrote.

The financial burden will not affect all academics equally. Some scientists are positioned to cover research costs as they arise in the course of a study, even unexpected or unanticipated costs. In…

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