May 25, 2011

Social Media for Researchers and Academics: Workshop Review

On Friday, May 20th, the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services held a one-day workshop on the use of Social Media for Researchers and Academics in Edinburgh. I was fortunate to be able to attend on behalf of the History Subject Centre (Higher Education Academy).

Why bother with social networking?
This was the first and most important question raised at the workshop. I will admit, quite openly, that I have an ambivalent relationship with social media. On the one hand, I find the speed of information dispersal made possible by social networking truly awesome (in the dictional sense of the word). However, I have also shuddered at the idea of 'txtspk' infiltrating other forms of written communication and the shallow nature of the majority of information transmitted via Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Moreover, I maintain deep concerns regarding reputation management and personal privacy. Nonetheless, I recognise that social media are tools. If they have been misused in the past, that should not condemn their future use outright.

The organisers of the event, a group of very lovely individuals who genuinely wanted to provide information rather than proselytise, started the event by voicing my very fears, allowing a space for discussion rather than simply dismissing them as prejudicial. They then proffered the following advantages of social media, which we would consider during the rest of the workshop:

Social media platforms allow you to listen as well as speak - The main complaint surrounding social media is that it is mono-directional and not truly social. Rather than meaningful conversation, we are presented with an ever-increasing and seemingly unnavigable stream of information, often regarding cats requesting fast food. Yet, although this is the how many people use social media, it is not how social media must or even should be used. Instead, they provides a platform beyond 'traditional' promotional methods, such as printed publications and their electronic counterparts, for soliciting and responding to feedback from a limited or wide-ranging community. The example was given by one of the presenters was that he had once complained of poor service by ScotRail on Twitter and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had not only acknowledged his specific complaint, but offered him a voucher in compensation. They were listening!

Social media is cheap, easy to use, wide ranging in application and audience, much quicker than traditional media and allows for a degree of informality in conversation - The second point was that social media sites provide individuals and organisations with a ready-made medium for supporting their personal and professional aims. Most services were free, or very cheap in comparison with traditional dissemination tools, and were effectively instantaneous in reaching their intended recipients. They could also be re-purposed without retraining the user. Facebook, whether use for reconnecting with schoolmates, developing a research community or soliciting feedback on a new product, requires essentially the same skills and equipment from participants. Finally, social media sites allow informal conversations, an intermediary step between personal writings (in whatever context) and a more formal written, broadcast or commercial communication.

Social bookmarking (delicious)
The first tool we explored was social bookmarking, specifically the service delicious. This free website allows users to maintain and sort, through tagging, all of their internet bookmarks in a cloud atmosphere, making them accessible from any computer terminal with an internet connection. There were a variety of generic benefits of using this service, which are best explained by the folks at Commoncraft.

In addition to these generic benefits, however, there are a number of aspects of social bookmarking that are particularly useful to academics and researchers.

Sociability - While you can make a particular bookmark private, or set this as default, you also have the ability to make your bookmarks publicly visible. This has a number of uses. First, if someone else has tagged the same site as you, you will be notified by a blue box, which indicates how many users have also bookmarked it. By clicking on this box, you can see which tags have been used, the descriptions which have been entered and the user names of the people who have bookmarked them. Clicking on a user name brings up their bookmarks, which may introduce you to other relevant sites. Second, you can search by tag to find resources on a given topic. By noting the number of users that have also bookmarked a given site, you are given some indication of the value of the information therein.

Research and teaching collaboration - The tagging function can also aid research or teaching collaboration. By using an unusual tag, or by 'subscribing' to each others listings, a group of researchers can all tag sites which are relevant for their particular project. Likewise, a lecturer or tutor can create dynamic resource lists for their students. This is further aided by the ability to create RSS feeds of particular tags so researchers or students will be notified whenever a new resource is added.

A similar website, CiteULike, was also mentioned, though this was primarily for academic citations rather than websites in general.

RSS (Google Reader)
Another important tool highlighted by the workshop was a RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader such as Google Reader. As researchers, we are daily visiting dozens of websites in search of updated information on a variety of projects. By obtaining RSS feeds of these websites, we can collate our information more efficiently. For example, by aggregating feeds of frequently visited news sites (BBC), academic journal publishers (Informaworld), blogs and funding agencies (AHRC), I can be instantly informed if and when any of these sites has posted new information. Although it only take a minute or two to visit each site manually, this time adds up very quickly and can unnecessarily take up a sizable portion of your day.

Want to know more? Head on over to RSS in Plain English.

Online communities (Facebook,, LinkedIn)
Next up was online communities such as Facebook, or LinkedIn. At one point or another I had joined all three of these site and was keen to know if there was more I could be getting out of my experience with them. Although LinkedIn has a growing number of professional users, I have found that Facebook and remain the most useful sites for me., on the one hand, does what it says on the tin. It is Facebook for academics. Because of this it has a number of academia-specific features, such as the ability to

  • post citations, publications and teaching material
  • tag yourself and your publications by research interests
  • search for others by research interest or university and
  • ask questions of the community

Only a few years old, is still growing, but already serves a very large international community.
Facebook, on the other hand, has a much wider clientele and a few features not yet available from Prominent among these is the ability to create pages for communities, groups and organisations. Although they must be managed by one or more individual accounts, group pages allow you to converse with members of your community through wall posts or polls as well as disseminate information. Although feedback mechanisms such as discussion boards, web-forms and email can be integrated into your organisation's existing website, using online communities such as Facebook stop you from having to re-invent the wheel. Why develop and maintain a feedback mechanism which will require your community to create yet another online account (and remember yet another online password) when a large proportion of them will already have a Facebook account?

In the end, the most important thing I took away from the discussion of online communities was this: Whichever one you chose to use, you should approach networking online the same way you would approach it offline--organically. You wouldn't walk into a bar and yell out your research interests, hoping to secure a large number of useful contacts. Why would you do that online? Start your online network by friending or following individuals you actually know in 'real life'. By looking through their discussions and networks you will find others you want to connect with, and, through them, even more. But, importantly, they will have been chosen in a discerning fashion and, hopefully, their discussions will be ones you are interested in following.

Before we start, head on over to Commoncraft for another great video. Now then, why should we, as researchers, blog? There are several excellent reasons, some more strategic than others. First, blogging about your research, or teaching, raises your academic profile. For early career researchers, with limited publications in major journals, blogging is a way of getting your ideas and research known to academics and the wider public. With the impact agenda becoming ever more pressing, especially for those in the arts, having a popular blog not only offers quantitative evidence that you are making an impact, it may provide qualitative evidence as well.

Let's say your researching something fairly obscure, such as passage advertisements in Scottish newspapers following the conclusion of the Napoleonic War. Sad to say, you are probably not expecting a call from Radio 4 to discuss your work. However, blogging about your project allows you to explain your research, and its relevance, to a wider audience. Once the media understand what you are doing and why, that phone call may come after all. (Note: If any Radio 4 producers are reading this, I am very happy to take your questions)

In another vein, it offers you the opportunity to workout your writing muscles on a regular basis. Writing that next article may seem daunting, but a quick 500 word blog post each week is much more manageable. While you aren't likely to post something particularly detailed, writing briefer pieces lets you test out ideas and elicit informal feedback. Think of it as the world's largest seminar series.

However, a note of caution must be made. Blogging requires dedication. If you can only post once a month, or every month, you are unlikely to retain the consistent readership you need to disseminate your ideas and start a fruitful conversation with your readers.

Microblogging (Twitter)
After a rather remarkably delicious lunch, we turned our attention to microblogging and its most famous provider, Twitter. This was probably the form of social media that received the most resistance from the delegates in the room (and academics I have spoken to in general). New to Twitter? Commoncraft's covered that too!

For those unable or unwilling to blog in the 'traditional' sense, Twitter may, in fact, be for you. By providing a very short (140 characters) commentary on your current activities, be they reading, writing, teaching or attending an academic event, you are making your thoughts available to the wider world and maintaining an active role in at least one stream of academic conversation. So, what are some good uses of Twitter for academics?

  • asking for reading suggestions or reviews "Any recent articles on...."
  • advertising a speaking engagement "In London? Come hear my paper on....."
  • searching for specialists "Looking for assistance with...."
  • finding a peer reviewers "Almost ready to submit. Anyone fancy a read of..."
  • locating the right room at a conference "#AHA2011 Where is Foner's panel being held?"
  • advertising an event, call for papers, or publication
  • facilitating an online discussion group in large lectures

There are, however, a few words of caution I must make about using Twitter in a professional context. First, if online reputation management is important to you, and it is to most of us, be careful of what you Tweet. Its very tempting to use Twitter as a soapbox or as a way to left off steam from one too many poorly written student papers. Just remember, once something is on the internet, chances are it will never (ever) be completely gone. Someone, somewhere--probably Google--will have archived that comment for posterity.

Second, try to remember that Twitter is much more and oral than a written format. It is best used for discussing what is rather than what was, expressing initial reactions than reflected thought. The latter is better suited for blogging, where you have the time and space to compose your thoughts. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't advertise your blog with Twitter.

Collaborative Writing Tools (Google Docs)
The next social media tool is probably well known to most of you. There are a number of collaborative writing tools available, but Google Docs is probably the most easily accessible. Google Docs allows your to store and edit your document, spreadsheet and presentation files online. While cloud computing is pretty handy on it own, the beauty of Google Docs is the ability for a large number of people to simultaneously work on a single document. Gone (hopefully) are the days of sending a document via email, only to end up with two, ten, or even hundreds of slightly different versions from your collaborators.

Google Docs is somewhat limited in its formatting capability, but does have a number of functions which make it worthwhile. In addition to simultaneous editing, it allows you to add comment bubbles to your text, text chat in the sidebar with any other editors who are currently online, and view a complete revision history of the document. If one of your partners (or you) accidentally delete your findings, you can simply return to an earlier version of the document and retrieve them.

The last piece of social media discussed was the hero and Nemesis of so many, Wikipedia. Again, rather than re-invent the wheel, those new to the Wiki revolution should visit our friends over at Commoncraft.

So what does Wikipedia offer academic researchers beside heartache when marking student essays? As it turns out, a great deal. First, we must get over any lingering feelings of anger towards Wikipedia itself. While inaccuracies certainly abound, a recent study found that Wikipedia is actually almost as accurate the Encyclopedia Britannica. Of course, I wouldn't want my students citing the Encyclopedia Britannica in their essays either, but on raw accuracy, Wikipedia is doing quite well. The point is that it could do even better, with our help. Like blogging, contributing to Wikipedia can be for selfless or strategic aims. On the one hand, sharing your expertise by improving articles will help countless individuals who may never have the benefit of attending your classes or reading your academic papers. On the other, making your academic research more accessible to the general public will increase the likelihood that your research area will attract additional attention and funding. Just remember, it is against Wikipedia's policy to write articles about yourself or your organisation. Improving and expanding articles on your areas of expertise, however, is greatly encouraged. You may also want to join a WikiProject, to systematically improve articles in your field, or have students create and improve Wikipedia articles as an assessed project.

At the end of a long, enjoyable day of exploring social media, I cannot say I have come to any firm conclusions about their use in academic life. I have started to populate my delicious account and have seriously contemplated trying my hand at writing a Wikipedia article. In the end, though, I think the best advice given on the day was this. Here are the tools which are available to you; use what you find useful and leave the rest.

Helpful Links:
The Social Learning Handbook:
Social Media: a Guide for Researchers:

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