The benefits of social media in research

On Saturday 8 February I had the pleasure of contributing to the Institute of Historical Research Historylab Plus event: Social Networking for Historians. This was organised by Kimm Curran and Cath Feely to help early career historians to explore enhancing their individual professional profiles, or their research group’s profile by using social media. Perhaps the most delightful element of the day was the chance to meet so many of the researchers I knew only through Twitter! Along with Matt Houlbrook I spoke about using social media in research. I’m posting my thoughts as a record of this section of the workshop. I’ve talked before about this in more detail here, but I focus on research in this post.

twitterstorians-cloud2

For an explanation of this word cloud see Frédéric Clavert’s blog:

I’ve used social media for around 9 months and I think it has transformed my professional life. In terms of research I want to outline three major benefits I’ve encountered.

  1. Research networks

Social media has enabled me to become part of thriving research network for the first time in my career (it is about 14 years since my PhD was submitted). It is my impression that research contacts prior to social media functioned through a model that suited people without other commitments – essentially the cloistered Oxbridge format. In contrast social media brings together a far-flung group of like-minded contacts to share knowledge and – just as important – support and reassurance. And this is easily personalised to suit your specific needs at your stage of career or aspirations.  In fact I think social media suits early career academics because it plays to their diversities in their study patterns, location, academic affiliation or independent status, numerous other commitments from earning money to caring for family members. Perhaps only the more senior academics are able to reject social media because they have established a network. And even then, all stages of the profession benefit from new contacts and new ideas!

In my time on social media I’ve discovered more about current research projects, conferences, and activities than I ever did before. Ironically, I’ve also been able to attend more events – because they’re more valuable in terms of time and financial commitment. After all I interact with people whose work I admire and in seeing the events they promote I don’t waste time attending those that I thought might be suitable, but weren’t for me. At my stage of (mid-) career being on social media has enormous benefits because other historians ‘see’ me and invite me to give papers. In honesty, these are vital for our CVs because they advance our careers. Also I’m often dumbstruck at how  social media is facilitating early career historians to organise events that raise their profile far more than I felt was possible when I was a post-grad or recently appointed.

So if I spent a lot of my career feeling isolated – for me because I’m an introvert, I have family commitments, and I just have often felt I’m not in the right place doing the right thing – social media has integrated me into a welcoming community.

  1. 2.     Public engagement and research dissemination

I’ve published two monographs and several articles so far. I don’t think they have been read by a large number of people, even academics. Yet I love the history that I’ve worked on. In my case this is the people I’ve discovered and their mundane, astounding, and appalling stories. And I want to tell other people about them. Apart from teaching I didn’t know how to do this. To be frank, it is only when I joined Twitter that I saw tweets about #twitterstorians’ blogs (and others) and realised the high calibre of the writing that is available. Following suit has given me a platform to show my research to academics and non-academics.

I’m now revisiting my research projects which I’d seen as finished because they’d been published and reworking them as posts. I’ve fallen back in love with these complicated people and their activities again (which makes teaching easier ‘cos I get bored easily with the stuff I’ve done) and increased the number of people who know about them. An unexpected benefit is that writing posts is easier than writing for publication. Blog writing can be imperfect and chatty and so I have got into a habit of writing for pleasure rather than seeing it as a horror. At least when I procrastinate it is by writing about my research.

The possibility of measuring the numbers of people who see my work exists too. The last couple of years in HE has increased the need for us to engage with the public and to demonstrate impact. The latter is difficult, but simply by noting visitors to my blog and comments I can demonstrate to my department that I am utilising its financial support for my research. A recent post reflecting on my emotional connections with my research encouraged numerous comments and I was delighted that some were by non-academics.

My fairly rapid familiarisation with social media was also absolutely essential, I realised, when submitting an AHRC grant application last November. In the three years or so between my funding applications, the process had shifted hugely to demonstrating impact. I know that without my social media experience I could not have managed to write the four detailed separate statements required. I was able to plan mechanisms for impact, a variety of forms of research dissemination to various sectors from government to charitable organisations and to at least identify potential areas of impact. I don’t know if I will get the funding, but I do know that all three reviewers commented that my impact statement was very well done.

  1. 3.     Amplifying  your research publications

Relatively early in joining twitter, I was emailed by Kudos who were working with Taylor & Francis on a pilot project to amplify research publications. They set up a platform which allows authors to promote their publications very easily through social media. I used this on the two articles I had in a Taylor & Francis journal. Entirely unknowingly this led to a far wider reach for my work.

The point is that this is the way forward for academic publications in the humanities. Although methods of measuring research impact for REF 2020 are still to be decided they may well move away from citation counting to a more free-form model of measurement using alternative metrics – which basically count how often your work is mentioned in various forms of social media. So it seems to me to that if being engaged in social media (to the extent that suits YOU) has benefits and can help develop early career researchers, opting out of it could actively damage a career.

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