Background

Back on 19th June 2014 I gave an invited plenary talk on “Open Practices for Researchers” at the Research and Innovation Conference 2014 at the University of Bolton. I was pleased to have an opportunity to share my experiences with researchers at the University of Bolton, an institution which has a clear focus on teaching and learning but is seeking to develop its research activities.

The slides for the presentation are available on Slideshare. However these do not provide detailed information on the approaches I would recommend to researchers who wish to develop their professional networks and maximise access to their research outputs.

On Thursday 11th September I am giving an invited presentation on “Using Social Media to Build Your Academic Career” at  a workshop on “How to Build an Academic Career“ in Brussels for the five Flemish universities.  The workshop participants (about 60-100) will mostly be late phase PhD students and post-docs in Life Sciences but there will always be some few senior scientists.

This provides an opportunity to document in more detail the ideas I will be presenting in my talk. As well as providing a wider forum for the ideas, this blog post (as opposed to depositing a paper in a repository) makes it easier to solicit questions, comments and feedback.

Using Social Media to Build Your Academic Career

Should you use social media to support your research career?

This presentation seeks to provide a response to a rather provocative assertion posted on the Smart Scientist blog: “Social media profiles are bad for most scientists!“.

My answer to the question is that researchers should use social media to support their research career. But they should do so for specific purposes, namely to:

  1. Develop your professional network
  2. Engage in discussions and exchange of ideas with your peers
  3. Disseminate your research ideas to a wider audience

The blog post which argued that “Social media profiles are bad for most scientists!” highlighted the risks of inappropriate use of social media:

Displaying photos of yourself being drunk, undressed or being masqueraded as Adolf Hitler, a suicide bomber or a sexually overactive transvestite. Your friends may find these pictures funny, many people will find them unpleasant, crude and bad taste.

The post concludes with the advice:

The golden rule for scientists using social media profiles:

Do NOT use them – or use them professionally.

I propose a modified version of this golden rule:

The golden rule for scientists using social media profiles:

Use them – and use them professionally.

The question then is “how should researchers make use of social media to support their professional activities?” I will seek to provide answers to this question in this post. But before doing so I would like to address the implied suggestion that social media is inherently irrelevant to researchers professional activities.

Tabloid newspapers

Print media has no relevance to researchers! Really?

We could make similar claims about TV if we looked only at reality TV programmes. We could be dismissive of print media if we considered only the tabloid newspapers.  Indeed the Web could similarly be dismissed (and, in fact, was dismissed by some librarians in the early 1990s) as being irrelevant to the scholarly and research activities carried out in higher education!)

We know, of course, that another form of print media, peer-reviewed journals, is very relevant to researchers. And just as we have Keeping Up with the Kardashians we also have BBC 2’s Wonders of the Universe in which the physicist Professor Brian Cox “reveals how the most fundamental scientific principles and laws explain not only the story of the universe, but the story of us all“.

We can see that print media and the TV can be used for trivial purposes as well as supporting professional activities including exchange of ideas with one’s peers (research publications) and dissemination to the general public (as science documentaries on the TV do). Social media can also be used for a diversity of purposes, and it would be wrong to dismiss it by focussing on only its trivial (mis)-uses.

Similarly it would be a mistake to be dismissive of the ‘social’ aspects of social media. If you think about the environment in which research is disseminated consider how conferences not only provide opportunities for disseminating one’s research, receiving feedback and sharing ideas but also for developing one’s network – indeed the conference dinner and late night drinking in the bar have an important role in cultivating one’s professional network and establishing new contacts. The informal aspects of social media tools can hep support this activity.

Personal Experiences Of Benefits of Social Media

@slewth's Twitter profileI have some personal experiences of how such informal use of social media led to a successful research collaboration. A post on “It Started With A Tweet” described how I received a reply to a tweet in which I invited researchers to complete a survey on use of social media. Sarah Lewthwaite (@slewth) responded. I then looked at her Twitter profile and discovered she had similar research interests (in Web accessibility). I followed the link in her profile to her blog (if it had been to her university web site I wouldn’t have bothered doing this!) and realised that her interests and expertise complemented mine nicely. So I sent Sarah a direct message:

 BTW was interested in your short paper on Aversive Disablism and the Internet. We’ve similar interests. See http://bit.ly/8BVFt

As described in the post “Winner of John M Slatin Award at W4A 2010” that Twitter conversation led to a joint paper on “Developing countries; developing experiences: approaches to accessibility for the Real World” being written. This was accepted by the W4A 2010 conference and subsequently won an award for the best communications paper!

A related example of the tangible  benefits of use of Twitter was summarised just over 4 years ago in a post on 5,000 Tweets On published after I had posted my 5,000th tweet.  As described in the post after presented a paper at the OzeWAI 2009 conference two members of the audience sent me a tweet: @RuthEllison told me that she “enjoyed your presentation this morning about a holistic approach to accessibility #ozewai” and @scenariogirl also showed some Australian warmth: “Fantastic talk this morning, I will come up and say hi at lunch ;)”.

Having my Twitter ID on the title slide for my talk made it easier to receive feedback on the talk. In this case subsequent discussions at the conference also led to Ruth Ellison and Lisa Herrod (@scenariogirl) providing case studies from Australia which were included in the paper on From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability which was published 6 months after we met.

Being Pro-active: An Implementation Plan

Having gained some unexpected experiences of the benefits of Twitter to support my research activities the next step was to make use of social media in a systematic way.

Use of Slideshare at W4A 2012After hearing that our paper on “A challenge to web accessibility metrics and guidelines: putting people and processes first” had been accepted by the W4A 2010 conference myself and my co-authors – Martyn Cooper (@martyncooper), David Sloan (@sloandr) and Sarah Lewthwaite (@slewth) agreed that we would be pro-active in our use of social media in order to raise awareness of our paper and the ideas outlined in the paper, hoping that this would lead to real-world actions: citations from other accessibility researchers and take-up of the ideas by practitioners.

We ensured that we knew the URLs for the key resources associated with the delivery of the paper: the URL of the paper in the institutional repository and the slides hosted on Slideshare. This enabled the co-authors to write blogs about the paper in advance and schedule them for publication during the conference.

David Sloan, who presented the paper, ensured that the Twitter IDs of the co-authors was included on the title slide, as shown. The slides concluded with links to the various blog posts and other resources (such as a YouTube video which summarised the paper) we had created.

After the conference had finished we used Topsy to analyse the Twitter discussions about the slides on Slideshare, the event hashtag (#w4a12) and the paper in the University of Bath repository.

It was pleasing to observe positive comments we received from influential Twitter users with large numbers of followers:

@stcaccess (Influential):
Enjoyed “Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics & Guidelines” slides from @sloandr & Co. slideshare.net/sloandr/w4a12-… #w4a12 #a11y #metrics

and how such comments were shared by other influential Twitter users across their communities:

Mike Paciello @mpaciello (Influential): RT @stcaccess: Enjoyed “Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics & Guidelines” slides from @sloandr & Co. slideshare.net/sloandr/w4a12-… #w4a12 #a11y

Since both of these Twitter users are well-known in the Web accessibility community we hoped that their actions would raise awareness of our work across their communities. But do we have any evidence that our pro-active approaches was successful in raising the visibility of our work?

Shortly after the conference had finished I analysed the Slideshare usage statistics for the three sets of slides which had been tagged with the conference hashtag. I found that after a week our slides had 1,391 views while the others had 3 and 311 views. It would appear that you need to be proactive if you wish people to view your resources – which it probably a truism which is relevant to many digital resources.

But did the popularity of the slides lead to a corresponding interest in the paper itself? The answer is yes: the download statistics for 2012 show that the paper was the third most downloaded of my papers during the year. The downloads also led to citations with Google Scholar Citations reporting that there have been 12 citations of the paper to date.

Aggregate Links to Your Papers

Whilst use of social media to raise awareness of your research activities engage others in discussions about the ideas is an important aspect of use of social media it would be a mistake to ignore the importance of Google – after all this is probably the most important tool people use for finding your research papers, especially once the buzz associated with a conference is over.

ResearchGate_profile: Brian KellyFor some time I have made use of various third-party services for profiling my professional activities. LinkedIn is an important tool for providing an online CV. However in addition to using it to provide a summary of my skills and expertise  a few years ago I used it to include links to all of my peer-reviewed papers.

As researcher profiling services, such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu, grew in popularity I started to use these services to provide additional links to my peer-reviewed papers, which were hosted in Opus, the University of Bath institutional repository.

I then realised that links from such popular services to the Opus repository was likely to enhance the visibility of papers in the repository to Google, as Google ranking algorithms make use of the numbers of links from popular Web sites as an indication of relevance. This led to myself and Jenny Delasalle writing a paper which asked Can LinkedIn and Academia.edu Enhance Access to Open Repositories? We concluded:

A survey of use of such services across Russell Group universities shows the popularity of a number of social media services. In the light of existing usage of these services this paper proposes that institutional encouragement of their use by researchers may generate increased accesses to institutional research publications at little cost to the institution.

I now make use of LinkedIn, ResearchGate and Academia.edu to provide details of my research papers. This is an approach I would recommend to others – and since the profile is likely to require updating on change of jobs or significant change of responsibilities and new content needs to be uploaded only when new papers are published the maintenance work need not be too onerous,- unless you are a very productive researcher!

Reviewing the Evidence

This post has summarised personal approaches to use of social media to support my research activities. But what evidence is there of the value of such approaches?

OPUS statistics: Top authors on 8 Sept 2014As illustrated, the download statistics for Opus, the University of Bath institutional repository, show that my papers have, in total, been downloaded over 51,000 times, compared with over 14,000 and 13,000 downloads for the authors with the next largest numbers of downloads.

There may be a number of reasons for such popularity including:

  1. The quality of the papers.
  2. Effective use of SEO (search engine optimisation) approaches.
  3. Use of unethical ‘black hat’ SEO approaches.

I feel that the second reason is the most likely reason for the large number of downloads. But does this lead to increased number of citations?

According to Google Scholar Citations I currently have a h-index score of 13 and an i10-index score of 18 (as shown below).

Google Scholar Citations (August 2014)

I do not find it strange that in order to maximise the numbers of citations you need to maximise the numbers of your peers (the people who are likely to cite your papers) who download and read the papers. Since, if cultivated appropriately,  your professional social network is likely to comprise of fellow professionals who have similar research interest to yours we should not be surprised at the effectiveness of social networks to develop one’s research career. But do other researchers have similar experiences.

In a blog post entitled “The verdict: is blogging or tweeting about research papers worth it?” Melissa Terras described how:

In October 2011 I began a project to make all of my 26 articles published in refereed journals available via UCL’s Open Access Repository – “Discovery“. I decided that as well as putting them in the institutional repository, I would write a blog post about each research project, and tweet the papers for download. Would this affect how much my research was read, known, discussed, distributed?

Melissa Terras's download statisticsWas this activity successful? Melissa concluded that:

Most of my papers, before I blogged and tweeted them, had one to two downloads, even if they had been in the repository for months (or years, in some cases). Upon blogging and tweeting, within 24 hours, there were, on average, 70 downloads of my papers. Now, this might not be internet meme status, but that’s a huge leap in interest.

The effectiveness of tweeting links to peer-reviewed papers is shown in the accompanying image. It may be that Melissa gained benefits of being an early adopter of use of Twitter in this way. These days I would feel that there is a need to ensure that you tweet links to papers at an appropriate time or context (e.g. when the paper is first deposited; during a conference when it is being presented or when the content of the paper is appropriate to a Twitter discussion.

In an article by Athene Donald, a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, published on Physics Focus Professor Donald argued that “Tweeting and blogging aren’t wastes of academics’ time – they can be valuable outreach“. She concluded by asking researchers:

isn’t it time you considered blogging and tweeting as part of your professional activity, not just something you ascribe as being only suitable for teenagers or those with time to kill?

What Can I Do?

If you agree with Professor Donald your first question might be “What do I do?“. For those who are new to social media my suggestions are:

  • Identify your personal objectives: Have a clear idea of what you wish to gain from use of social media to further your career as a researcher. Do you wish to use social media simply as a broadcast media to announce your professional activities or will you prefer to engage in discussions with your peers?
  • Identify and follow/engage with your peers: For an effective professional network you will need to establish connections with your peers. Note that even if you are an experienced user of social networks there are likely to be times in your career when you have new responsibilities or areas of work, so you may still need to implement strategies for following and engaging with new peers. Conferences you have an interest in which have a Twitter hashtag provide an ideal opportunity to identify your peers and add them to your Twitter network.
  • Try Twitter for at least 10 days: After you have signed up for a Twitter account you should try and use it on a daily basis for at least ten days. This can help you to ‘get it’. Note that it order to make effective use of Twitter to support your research career you will need to reach a critical mass for your Twitter  community.
  • Make use of social sharing services for your resources: If you give presentations you may find that hosting your slides on a resource sharing service such as Slideshare can provide an effective way of developing your professional network: unlike hosting your slides on your institutional Web side, using a service such as Slideshare enable your slides to be publicly favourited by others and enables other Slideshare users to be notified when new slides are uploaded.

Once you have created and started to make use of a social media services you should ensure that you manage the network and explore additional tools and services you can use:

  • Update your LinkedIn account: LinkedIn is a generic online CV service. As described in a paper which asked Can LinkedIn and Academia.edu Enhance Access to Open Repositories? presented at OR 2012: the 7th International Conference on Open Repositories since LinkedIn is such a popular service links from the service to papers hosted in an institutional repository are likely to enhance the discoverability (the ‘Google juice’)  of paper in the repository. It can therefore be beneficial to include links to your research outputs to your LinkedIn profile.
  • Create an account on a researcher profiling service: Services such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu can complement use of LinkedIn by providing added exposure to your research papers.
  • Monitor use of Twitter through (freely-available) Twitter analytic tools: As described in a post on The Launch of Twitter’s Analytics Service and Thoughts on Free Alternatives a number of analytics tools are available which can help you to gain a better understanding of your use of Twitter and your Twitter community.

Managing Information Overload

Researchgate: configuration optionsInformation overload is a concern sometimes raised regarding use of social media.

By default many social media will try and maximise the time users spend on their web sites as these ‘eyeballs’ can be monetised, typically through advertising.

Although advertising on web sites tends not to be very popular, there is a need to acknowledge that the services do need to have some means of raising money to provide their services.

The good news is that many services enable alerts to be configured: there is no need to accept the default settings.

In order to avoid the need to visit Web sites in order to see if your papers have been commented on, favourite, accessed, etc. you can choose to receive email alerts. Many services will allow you to select the activities for which you wish to be notified. ResearchGate, for example, has notification settings for Profile, Network, Q&A, Publications and Job email alerts (there are over 60 activities which can be managed).

Similarly in order to provide management capabilities for lively Twitter streams back in May 2014 Twitter announced “Another way to edit your Twitter experience: with mute“.

Such approaches won’t eliminate the problems of information overload, but can ensure that such concerns can be managed.

Of course another solution to the problems of information overload caused by social media would be to avoid social media completely. This is an extreme way of managing the problems (as you will also fail to gain any of the benefits). However there is nothing to stop you choosing to switch off social media channels when you are on holiday, at weekends or on other occasions when you need  break form your professional activities.

Addressing Other Barriers

The risks and opportunities frameworkThere are other barriers to effective use of social media for supporting one’s research career. A paper on a risks and opportunities framework was described in a paper on Library 2.0: Balancing the Risks and Benefits to Maximise the Dividends which was later enhanced in a paper on Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web to include details of ways of addressing copyright risks.

In brief, yes there are risks in using social media to support one’s research activities. However there are also risks in failing to use social media (the missed opportunities) as well as risks in simply continuing to make use of existing institutional tools.

The risks and opportunities framework provides a structure for identifying and documenting risks and strategies for minimising such risks.

Conclusions

This post is longer than normal. If you have skipped straight to the conclusions here is the TL;DR summary:

Social media is valuable for researchers in enabling them to easily exchange ideas and engage in discussions with their peers and potential beneficiaries of their research. The evidence demonstrates the value of managed use of social media.

Resources

The slides used in the presentation are available on Slideshare and embedded below.


View Twitter conversations and metrics using: [Topsy] – [bit.ly]