All entries for Friday 25 February 2011

February 25, 2011

Social media: a guide for researchers from the RIN

Writing about web page

I really like the "links and resources" pdf associated with this guide, listing lots of sites of potential interest/relevance to researchers, in categories. It sometimes seems difficult to get a grip on all the many different sites and tools available online, and how they can all be used (there are lots of overlaps and quirky differences), so a simplified guide is very handy, and this single sheet also makes a great handout for our workshops!

The main guide itself explores some of the complexity. It uses case studies of researchers' uses of social media: researchers like to learn from other researchers, so this is a good approach. It often seems that the academic community is ideally placed to use social media tools, precisely because they like to learn from each other, but in my opinion this could also be a hurdle since there are many collaborative and networking practices out there already, just not using social media tools.

The guide is worth a read if you are a researcher who is new to social media, or a new researcher. My notes below might be a useful summary if you just want the gist of what it covers.

The guide offers to show the reader "how social media offer researchers an opportunity to improve the way they work" in its introduction. It reports that researchers use social media "to bridge disciplinary boundaries, to engage in knowledge exchange with industry and policy makers and to provide a channel for the public communication of their research."

In explaining what social media are, the guide puts social media tools into functional categories (as used on the linked resources sheet) and then into three higher level categories which seem to me to describe the strengths of social media: Communication, Collaboration and Multimedia. Criticisms of social media are acknowledged and answered with the perspective that there are so many tools with so many different possible uses, and that beneficial use can be made of them, with an awareness of pitfalls.

The guide describes four stages of the research cycle, around collaboration and that it is the many to many nature of social media that makes it different to other communication channels, and so potentially useful in each of these stages.

Stage i. Idenfication of knowledge
"Social media can help you to both discover more and to filter more effectively". This could be done through connections with a network of other researchers, whose reading you can see. The quality of your filter all depends on who belongs to your network!

Stage ii. Creation of knowledge
In this stage there are risks, such as jeopardising publication chances (journal publication agreements state that you have not previously published your research elsewhere) and providing people with "ammunition to criticise your work". It is important to be careful what you share when and with whom, but there are still opportunities to use social media to your advantage at this stage. My advice would be to consider only sharing with a discrete group of collaborators, rather than with the whole world. The guide suggests that you might wish to be open because you will get feedback as you go rather than waiting until the formal peer review stage. It summarises the sensible approach to this stage of the research journey very neatly: "Managing the balance between openness and disclosure requires you to think carefully about how you work and what you are trying to achieve", which seems to me to apply regardless of whether or not you are using social media.

Stage iii. Quality assurance of knowledge
Social media allow anyone to publish anything, but they also offer you the chance to filter what reaches you (and where it reaches you, although the guide doesn't mention that at this stage) and communities can recommend and comment on quality. The guide draws a parallel that I often describe myself, with social media activity being comparable to conversations at a conference: you can't take part in them all (nor would you ever want to!) but you can only take part in those of interest, if you are at the conference. You could view this networking site or that one as the conference, or you could view the whole social media, online world as the conference.

The guide has a wonderful quote on page 19, from Ruth Fillery-Travis, PhD Archaeology

I am attempting to get a paper published in an academic journal, but the really long lead time from first draft to publication is very off-putting as is the completely opaque process and the lack of any useful guidelines. I think traditional academic journals are really difficult to access for the first time because they tend to come across as more of 'who you know' than 'what you know'. 

Stage iv. Dissemination of knowledge
"Social media are above all about communication and are therefore ideal for researchers who wish to make their research more widely available." The guide poses a number of questions that researchers should think about when considering social media use at this stage, and it suggests that researchers are best placed to provide their own answers.

Section 4 of the guide considers actual tools, in each of the functional categories. I'm not going to summarise this part because the linked resources sheet is such a summary. I will add that there is really no substitute for just getting started with one of these tools and really exploring what it can do for you. Some of them have functions that are not entirely social, but which are also useful to researchers, such as storing web links and references just for yourself. You could even keep a blog for your research notes, and only allow yourself to read it!

The guide goes on to consider the problem of information overload, with the neat question: "If you feel that you have fallen behind in reading the core peer reviewed journals in your area, why would you want to start looking for new sources like blogs which are, by their nature, less reliable in quality?" The guide doesn't quite state that social media are in fact a good way to keep on top of traditional publications as well as more ephemeral content, but I think that that is what is meant and it is certainly the answer I would give. I read other people's summaries of reports and publications, in order to decide whether I want to read the whole thing myself or not!

A simple approach to reading is described, that researchers need to decide whether to read, park or discard a resource and the guide describes that social media can be used in this process. The example given is that social bookmarking and social citation tools allow you to park and retrieve content, and description of RSS feeds is then given. It is only a brief description, and it seems to me that we're moving beyond the need for descriptions of RSS itself and we need a lot more description of what those feeds are doing. There could be a whole guide written on the uses of RSS feeds by researchers.

We have our own brief guide to RSS feeds for researchers, under the heading "keeping up to date", although they can be used to do a lot more than that:

The RIN guide goes on to consider some elements of network theory, because the power of social media is  in the way you develop and use your networks. If you're going to choose to join a networking site then you will want to look at who else has joined it and what their interests are, and whether it is worth your while joining.  If you share a lot online anyway then people are more likely to include you in their networks (this might mean that they "follow" you or that they actively get in touch with you), and if you follow other people through social media then you will recognise people whose work interests you, who you will want to network with. You might use social media just to listen to others' work, or you might want to use such tools to broadcast about your own work, and the shape of your network might vary depending on your purpose. One very good piece of advice the guide offers is: "Being a connector between two networks can be invaluable, but being a connector between twenty can be exhausting. Therefore, thinking about the shape of your network, and how you manage your place in it, is vital." (p39)

The final thought of the guide is that: "...if you really want to understand what social media can do for you and your research, you need to start experimenting". I couldn't agree more!

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