Monday, 5 December 2016

Using Social Media to Support your Research

I’ve written before about social media, and about some of the sessions we’ve run on research and social media (such as those led by Nadine Muller and Becky Higgitt), but there seems to be an insatiable appetite amongst academics to understand them better, to participate fully and - in time - benefit from them.

The Early Career Researcher Network session in Medway on Wednesday went some way towards satisfying this demand. It was led by three academics from very diverse disciplines, who together gave an overview of the way in which social media can be used to talk about your research and engage with others beyond your School, to recruit research participants and manage a project, and to disseminate research, track impact, and improve citations.

Using Twitter to talk about your research and engage with others beyond your School

Dr Mark Burnley
Dr Mark Burnley (Sports & Exercise Sciences) began by outlining his experience of Twitter. He’s a seasoned user with almost 32,000 tweets behind him over 2,700 followers. ‘I’ve worked out that’s around 12 tweets a day,’ he said. ‘And that’s part of the problem: it can be highly addictive because it is so easy to use. There’s a fine line between productive procrastination and obsession.’

Inevitably, different people use it in different ways. For some, it’s entirely personal; for others, it’s entirely professional. For Mark, it’s a mix of the two, and this works well for him: he’s able to talk about his work, but also about politics and life with young children. He does sound a note of caution, however: if you do use it, even in part, for work, you need to be aware that you are seen informally as a spokesman for either your institution or your discipline.

Bearing this in mind, it is an incredibly useful platform: it allows for a much wider discussion than would have been possible just within your own department or university, and allows you to share literature, discuss higher education policy, and - importantly - to reach out to those outside your own discipline.

For him, the advantages of Twitter were:

  • Interacting with people who can apply your research: it’s a great vehicle for facilitating impact. He gave the example of Michael Freiberg, an Omnium world champion, who tweeted that ‘it took me a day or two to get through it but this was a fantastic article. Well done.’
  • Generating opportunities to extend your reach, such as getting invitations to speak at academic and non-academic events.
  • Driving web traffic to your work. He had ‘pinned’ a tweet of his latest publication to the head of his Twitter feed, and this will be the first thing that people see.
  • Helping to expand knowledge in the wider public of work going on in your discipline, and engaging in debate. In a year that has been hard on ‘experts’, Twitter does acknowledge and appreciate those with expertise to cut through the noise.


However, there are some negatives:

  • There is a lack of space for complex ideas. 140 characters favours those with simple message. Hence the current President-Elect.
  • You become an easy target for online abuse. Whilst experts are appreciated, the medium is a ‘broadcast’, and anyone can comment - or sound off - about you.


Mark concluded by saying that Twitter offered a potentially powerful platform for active researchers, but there are limitations and pitfalls. It is a form of open publication, and you have to think carefully about what you want to use it for. You need to be focussed in your aims, and be prepared to deal with both an increased interest in your work and the occasional criticism and abuse.

Using Facebook to recruit research participants and manage a project

Dr Kate Bradley
Facebook is ubiquitous. Almost all of us have an account, and it seems to transcend age, sex, religion and geography. Whilst many dismiss it as a less active or engaging medium than Twitter, it’s very limitations (and ubiquity) can make it a powerful tool for your research.

Dr Kate Bradley (SSPSSR) has received funding from the AHRC Gateways to the First World War Centre to explore the community memory of the War in Rochester and Borstal. As part of that she set up a Facebook page. This allowed amateur and community historians to share their knowledge, to gather information, and to learn from each other.

Using Facebook had the advantage of allowing her to reach specific groups with a geographic or specific interest, and gave her the opportunity to make the ‘group’ as open or closed as she wanted. She could vett those seeking access, and could arrange events in the real world via the platform. It had the functionality to upload photos and documents, and arrange and sort them so that a diverse range of participants, on a huge range of hardware, could access them in the same way.

Moreover, the very thing that some find frustrating about Facebook - it’s slowness and lack of limitations on message length - are the very things that made it a success for her project. It allowed for real engagement with her project, to like and react, to comment and follow threads, to convey longer messages, and to form a genuine community. By doing so there was a sense of ‘ownership’ amongst its users, and real engagement in the project.

However, like Twitter, there are disadvantages. Many use it for personal rather than professional reasons, so perhaps don’t take it as ‘seriously’ as you might like. It is driven by ‘real’ names, so people can’t be anonymous - which is both good and bad. It’s harder to have a corporate identity than Twitter and, if you are using it both personally and professionally, it does lead to difficult decisions about how you deal with ‘friend’ requests and the line between your two lives. And finally, there is a danger of the being a victim of your success: if your Facebook research page takes off, it may lead your work in ways that you might not necessarily want.

Using a range of tools to disseminate your research, track your impact, and improve citations

Dr Nigel Temperton
For Dr Nigel Temperton (Medway School of Pharmacy), social media are a way of making more of your outputs with very little additional work. Whilst at first the sheer diversity of social media can seem bewildering (he showed a diagram from the Utrecht University Library that spread out 101 different media in six different segments of activity), there was, for him, one essential starting point: ORCID.

ORCID provides you with a permanent number that you can use to identify you as the author of any of your work. That may sound somewhat redundant. I mean, doesn’t your name do that? But in a globalised information age, even the most unusual names are plentiful. Having a number that exactly identifies you and your work is essential.

It take minutes to get an ORCID, and it’s free, but once you have one it opens up a suite of incredibly useful tools that help to disseminate your work, engage with colleagues and non-academics, and increase your citations. Nigel gave a number of examples and scenarios:

  • Conference abstracts/poster/papers/talks: Use a repository such as Figshare, F1000 Research and ResearchGate to upload your poster or paper, and embed your ORCID in your work so that readers can see it in the context of your total work. By making these available beyond the conference it helps to establish your position in an emerging field prior to publication, and also allow you to continue networking after the conference has ended.
  • Pre-prints: whilst historically limited to the physical sciences, the use of pre-prints (i.e. articles that have not been peer reviewed by publishers yet) is gaining traction in many other disciplines. It allows you the chance to get early comments or spark a discussion, and some journals now solicit direct from pre-prints. Not only that , but a pre-print repository (such as bioRxiv, Peer J Preprint, F1000 Research) will assign you a DOI and therefore your work will be citable in only a few days. This can also be added to your CV for job and fellowship/grant applications, and linked on Twitter.  Once the final peer-reviewed paper is out, the two outputs can be linked using Crossref.
  • Dissemination: even when your article is published, you will need to encourage readers to find it and cite it. As well as depositing it on an institutional repository (such as the Kent Academic Repository (KAR)), you can make it available via ResearchGate or Academia.edu. If you have a blog, write a post in lay terms about why your study is important and link to the depositories.


Ultimately, if you’re successful in getting your outputs out and pointing people towards them, it should, in time, lead to an increase in citations. The benefit of this was, in Nigel’s blunt words, ‘an increased H-index, which equals career progression.’ To understand what effect your work has had, look at the citation index given in Google Scholar and Scopus. They will differ slightly, but you can get a sense of how much your work is being cited.

To further engage with potential readers, Nigel finished by highlighting three platforms: Kudos, Altmetric and Impactstory. Kudos allows you to explain your work in a clear and concise manner to a lay audience, and see what effect this has had on readership or download rates. Altmetric and Impactstory automatically track your profile (using your ORCID) to, as he put it, ‘give a snapshot of how your research is spreading to different locations and content platforms.’

The session finished with a brief question and answer session, and it was clear that the audience was engaged and enthused. They had all had different levels of experience, but the detailed questioning suggested that they were willing to try more or alternative media. And this, ultimately, is the value of such sessions: to make people aware of what’s out there, and give them the confidence to go and try on their own, and discover whichever platform suits them, their work, and the available time they have.

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