Social media is slowly infiltrating the ivory tower. In February 2011, the Research Information Network (UK) published an excellent guide advising scholars how various social media tools can be used in academic life to identify research opportunities, find and communicate with collaborators, keep up with the news and finally disseminate findings. There is something for everyone and for every stage of the research cycle. Another guide on how to use Twitter in research, teaching, and impact activities has recently been published by the LSE Public Policy Group.
Despite the benefits, the use of social media among faculty remains an exception rather than a rule. Social media suffers from a definite image problem in the academia. Anecdotal evidence shows that the majority of scholars continue to see social media as suitable for the young, the vacuous and those narcissistically inclined, and generally a waste of time.
Such a perception is not entirely unfounded – there is a lot of chatter, noise and self-serving babble. But as always, the usefulness of any tool depends on the user. What for some is a source of mindless entertainment, for others can be a medium facilitating useful conversation and access to interesting and current information.
Social media is no longer the excusive domain of the young – the adoption of social media tools has been growing fast among those over 50. For example, in 2010 almost half of US-based internet users aged 50-64 and one in four users aged 65+ used social networking sites. Moreover, research shows that the use of social media is more closely related to one’s personality, especially openness to new experiences, than age.
Non-academic authors and trade publishers have long been using blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools to promote their books and communicate with the readers. Similarly scholars can use social media as a way to promote and publicise their research, reach a wider audience and maximise citations. Social media makes it easy to cross disciplinary boundaries, to exchange knowledge with other researchers and policy makers, and to communicate research to the public.
Lacking the assurance of peer review, social media participation hasn’t got the academic imprimatur, and cannot replace the traditional scholarly communication methods at this stage. And it is not meant to. Instead, social media has the ability to complement scholarly publishing and contribute towards making the publications more discoverable online, more quickly.
Social media has certainly helped to boost the profile and increase recognition of Sydney University Press since we started using Twitter in 2009. While it is usually difficult to measure the impact of social media engagement on individual titles, our great success stories have social-media savvy authors behind them. These authors, who’ve made an effort to make their work discoverable online, are making a difference. And we’ve been here all along to support the symbiosis between the scholarly publishing and social media.
Professor Simon Chapman is using Twitter (@SimonChapman6) and Facebook to promote his book Let sleeping dogs lie? What men should know before getting tested for prostate cancer. Since its release in 29 October 2010, the book has been downloaded almost 10 000 times and it remains the most downloaded item in the Sydney eScholarship Repository.
Not all the success can be attributed exclusively to social media. Simon Chapman is a well-known researcher and the book has been widely covered in the mainstream media, and reviewed in numerous professional and academic journals. Every time the book is mentioned online, however, we post a link on social media platforms keeping the discussion around the topic of prostate cancer testing alive and making sure that the book stays in the public eye.
Dr Rosina McAlpine aka @DrRosina is another academic who has, in a relatively short time, built up an impressive following using blog, Twitter, Facebook and a blog-talk radio. The release of her new book Inspired children: how the leading mind of today raise their kids has been so successful that the launch was booked out and we had to turn people away.
Naturally, the books that have wider public appeal and those available in open access lend themselves to dissemination on social media platforms. But scholarly titles or those that require subscription can also benefit from greater exposure afforded by the digital word of mouth. As soon as an article or a book is published, the author can post a link to a citation or the publisher’s website on social media platforms providing new ways for research publications to be noticed by other researchers and audiences outside the university.
The effectiveness of social media is notoriously difficult to assess beyond counting the number of followers, ‘likes’ or checking the extent of ‘reach’, but a preliminary survey on the impact of economics blogs shows that blogging has a positive impact on the dissemination of research, professional reputation and a potential to influence policy, all that possible without the need to move away from one’s desk (the social media experiences of Dr Inger Mewburn aka @thesiswhisperer are a great case in point).
So while at present social media engagement does not count towards academic credentials, it can amplify and speed up the dissemination of traditionally published research, and lead to more citations – a worthwhile investment of time and resources, especially for early-career researchers.
Tips to get started
– Establish clear objectives and priorities to allocate the time and attention effectively. It is not about working more, it’s about working differently, at least some of the time.
– Check what other researchers in your field are doing and which platforms they use. Join in and experiment with different platforms and their features. See what works best for you.
– Decide on your audience - depending on who they are, you will need to adjust your tone and writing style. Be interesting and engaging. If you think social media is just about broadcasting and self-promotion, you are missing the point.
– Consider intellectual property, copyright implications and confidentiality issues. Everything that you post online is public (or can become such depending on the ever-changing privacy settings). You may need to consult with your co-authors and research collaborators before you post. It is also worth checking your university’s social media policy.
– Decide on the most suitable strategies such as the size of networks, the type and frequency of posts and the degree of personal disclosure. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
– Be patient (it takes a while to build up a functional and effective network) and relax (social media requires ongoing but not incessant attention)!