Survey on academics’ use of social media

In January I conducted an online survey to find out how academics are using social media sites and tools. A total of 711 faculty members and postgraduate students completed the survey, mostly from the UK, Australia/New Zealand and North America.

The complete report can be accessed here.

Here is the abstract providing an overview of the findings:

This report outlines findings from an international online survey of 711 academics about their use of social media as part of their work conducted in January 2014. The survey sought to identify the tools that the respondents used, those they found most useful and the benefits and the drawbacks of using social media as a university faculty member or postgraduate student. The results offer insights into the sophisticated and strategic ways in which some academics are using social media and the many benefits they have experienced for their academic work. These benefits included connecting and establishing networks not only with other academics but also people or groups outside universities, promoting openness and sharing of information, publicising and development of research and giving and receiving support. While the majority of the respondents were very positive about using social media, they also expressed a range of concerns. These included issues of privacy and the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional use, the risk of jeopardising their career through injudicious use of social media, lack of credibility, the quality of the content they posted, time pressures, social media use becoming an obligation, becoming a target of attack, too much self-promotion by others, possible plagiarism of their ideas and the commercialisation of content and copyright issues. The report ends by contextualising the findings within the broader social and political environment and outlining areas for future research.

Wikipedia for academics

Academics have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of the hugely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a credible source of scholarly information. They are concerned about the validity and reliability of the information presented, and the fact that entries are open to editing by any comer. Few academics thus far have contributed to Wikipedia as content generators or editors, although they admit to using it regularly, and they know that their students constantly refer to it.

Given that Wikipedia is now the most visited online reference work, surely it is time that more academics played a role in shaping its content? It should be noted that Wikipedia has changed in its approach to content generation over the years. A sophisticated quality control process is now in place by which entries are created, accepted and edited. Wikipedia entries must now be correctly referenced with credible and reputable sources. Although the entries do not have contributors’ names directly appended, it is easy to see who has contributed by clicking on the ‘edit’ button, as well as to view details of the edits they have made.

An increasing number of libraries, art galleries, archives and museums are using the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ idea to promote their holdings. Under this scheme, a person experienced in editing and creating Wikipedia entries spends a period of time (several weeks or more) at the institution to train staff members in the art. Institutions that have taken advantage of this scheme include the august British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Museu Picasso, the Smithsonian Institution, and here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales.

This seems to me to be a good idea for universities to adopt. If students and academics are regularly using Wikipedia, then they should also learn about how to contribute to the body of knowledge in this platform. For academics, this means that rather than simply sitting back and letting others create content on a topic in which they may be particularly expert, they can take an active approach and shape the content themselves. The entry can be revised and added to at any time, making it responsive to changes in the field about which one is writing.

Those academics who have worked on entries are often positive about the experience. One, Martin Poulter, argues that writing for Wikipedia has taught him how to write about academic subjects in an accessible manner. He gives examples of using Wikipedia writing for students as a means of allowing them to engage in online publication, and notes that Wikipedia entries often shape public debate because they are so widely consulted. He sees Wikipedia as an ‘online community for researchers, educators and students to take part in’.

I have created my own Wikipedia entry on the topic of digital sociology. This entry is now the first hyperlink to appear when the term ‘digital sociology’ is input in a search engine. It was not a particularly onerous task, once I had become familiar with the protocol.

Wikipedia provides clear outlines for how to create and edit entries. Nonetheless, providing training programs for academics by those experienced in creating Wikipedia content would make the process far easier. Some academics have held Wikipedia ‘hack days’ or ‘editathons’, gathering together to work on entries as a group. In the UK the organisation Wikimedia UK offers assistance for such training and events.

Engaging in Wikipedia content creation or editing can be a form of political resistance to marginalisation. Women contributors are far in the minority in Wikipedia, as are entries about high achieving women, and it has been contended that existing entries about women are deleted or severely edited disproportionately compared to those about men. There is clearly a ‘politics of Wikipedia’ involving the same types of marginalisation of and discrimination against less powerful social groups that occurs in other areas of social life, despite the platform’s rhetoric about open collaboration and democratic participation. Some feminist academics have taken up the gauntlet to redress this imbalance, organising mass editing days as part of the ‘Storming Wikipedia’ project, in which female students and academics work together to create entries about influential women.

Participation in the dynamic forum that is Wikipedia, therefore, can take many forms. As an academic (or student) one can engage in active content creation as part of shaping the public discourses on one’s chosen topic. Social researchers can also use the platform as a source of research data, investigating the ways in which knowledge is created and contested as part of the process of Wikipedia content creation and editing, the types of content that shape Wikipedia entries or how people respond to Wikipedia as a source of information. Surprising little critical social research thus far has been conducted on Wikipedia — there seems great scope for further investigation. More radically, contributing to Wikipedia can constitute a resistant political act.

Opening up your research: self-archiving for sociologists

I have been reading more and more about the virtues of making one’s academic research available on open access sites (also known as ‘self-archiving’) and the best ways of doing this. There are several reasons why this is a good idea. Open access publishing makes your research visible by removing it from behind paywalls and rendering it accessible to anyone with an internet connection. An increasing number of research funding bodies are now expecting this as part of their requirements. It has been demonstrated that uploading your material to open access services increases academic citations of your work, and therefore contributes to its impact.

Sociologists in general are way behind academics in some other disciplines in their use of any kind of digital technologies as part of their research and scholarship. Those of us using social and other digital media, therefore, have fewer colleagues with whom to interact. A critical mass of ‘digitised sociologists’ has yet to be generated. In failing to use open access archiving, sociologists are missing out on sharing their work, gaining a greater audience and citation numbers, achieving engagement with those who do not have access to journal collections and accessing other sociologists’ research.

As part of my own attempts to work towards open access of my writing and research, I have recently been experimenting with different ways of achieving this. I have uploaded documents to the following open access archiving services: my institution’s e-repository, Academia.edu and ResearchGate. I did look into the Social Science Network as well, as its title suggests that it might embrace sociological writing. Having investigated this service and uploaded a few papers, however, it is clear that this service is far more oriented towards economics, business and management, legal studies, cognitive science and the humanities, so I have not pursued this option. I also investigated Figshare, but this appears to be used predominantly by scientists. Having experimented with uploading some papers to ResearchGate, the same appears to be true of this platform. Until this situation changes, I can’t see the Social Science Network, Figshare or ResearchGate as benefiting sociologists to any great extent. Academia.edu, by contrast, has far more sociologist members, and therefore at the moment provides many more opportunities to interact with other sociologists.

My experience suggests that combining the use of my university e-repository and Academia.edu is the most effective form of self-archiving for sociologists. University e-repositories are functional rather than fancy-looking, and do not provide any type of social networking functions. However they have been carefully established to capture all the metadata required to facilitate access by search engines (title, place of publication, date, what type of article and so on), constitute a permanent and secure space in which to deposit papers, generate a consistent hyperlink to the publications and are overseen and managed by university staff members.

As depositing my documents into the e-repository produces a stable URL that I can then easily distribute via blog posts or tweets, it is very easy to publicise them. I can insert this link into my Academia.edu publications page, thus directing readers directly to the e-repository archive if they wish to view or download the publication, as well as embed it in my university profile page and so on.

Academia.edu, for its part, provides features that university e-repositories do not. It includes social networking functions, offering the opportunity to follow other individual researchers and research topics and for others to follow you, and also facilitates discussions with other members. I therefore recommend using both services in conjunction with each other to achieve maximum exposure, as well as employing social media tools such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook to publicise the material that you have uploaded.

One drawback of self-archiving is that one needs to be conversant with what can be quite complex copyright legislation. There are no standard copyright agreements across academic journal and book publishers in terms of self-archiving, and these can vary quite widely. Most journals and book publishers in sociology never allow authors to upload the final, published version of the document as it appears in the journal/book itself (often called the ‘publisher’s version’). Most do allow authors to self-archive the author’s own postprint version (the final version formatted by the author in a word-processed document that was accepted for publication by the journal following the review and revision process). Preprints (your version of a piece before it is peer-reviewed) can generally be uploaded straight away as the author holds the copyright for this material. However the uploading of postprints often has to wait for lengthy embargo periods, which in the social sciences tends to be 12–18 months. Some book publishers even require a three-year embargo period following publication of the final edited version for book chapters in edited collections. The copyright agreements of each individual journal or book publisher need to be checked when self-archiving, particularly in relation to restrictions around postprint versions.

According to the Budapest Open Access Initiative website (an extremely comprehensive source of information about open access and self-archiving), researchers should be self-archiving articles at both preprint and postprint stages of publication. Publishing on open access services is a great way to publish pieces of writing that would otherwise have languished on your computer hard drive, such as seminar or conference papers. It has been contended that writing book chapters, in particular, may be a waste of effort, as they are often not accessible to search engines and therefore difficult for potential readers to find. Publishing an author’s version on an open access service will overcome this.

I have found that a working paper published on an e-repository can be an effective choice for research that you are keen to publish quickly because it is particularly important or topical, rather than waiting the many months that the peer-review and standard publication process involves. This kind of pre-submission publication also allows for any comments or feedback from others to be incorporated (a kind of pre-publication review process) before finalising the piece in its required journal article or book chapter format. As well as pieces of a standard article/book chapter length, I have published quite short pieces of writing such as conference papers and collections of blog posts gathered under a single topic (e.g. collections on fat politics and digital sociology).

Two last pieces of advice. First, try to make sure that all the papers you upload are of ‘publication standard’: polished, carefully proof-read and attractively formatted. Second, include a statement at the beginning of each paper indicating how it should be cited. Including this statement, or at least enough information so that people can cite the document is very important if, indeed, you want your publications to be cited. I have come across several pieces of other people’s writing that they have uploaded to digital repositories where the document does not state even the year of publication, let alone other details, so it cannot be cited.

Further reading: The Academic’s Guide to Self-Publishing discusses self-archiving and lots more.

Social media for academia: some things I have learnt

2012 was the year of my big experiment: trying out various forms of social media for academic purposes. I was in many ways a social media novice when I began, as I had only really dabbled in Facebook, Academia.edu and LinkedIn before my period of experimentation began. But around the middle of last year I made the decision to jump in with both feet and try as many social media platforms as I could, all in the name of sociological experimentation as well as personal interest in what I could achieve using these tools.

Here are some of the things I have learnt thus far:

  • Twitter is an invaluable tool for academics. Through using Twitter I have made wonderful connections with a range of people I never would have encountered otherwise across a diversity of countries. I have had fascinating conversations in real time not only with other sociologists but also bioethicists, philosophers, nutritionists, anthropologists, fat activists, medical practitioners, graduate students, health care administrators, people working in digital technology development for medicine and  health  … the list goes on. Using Twitter I have been able to share not only links to my own research and blog posts, but also to many other news items, blog posts and academic articles and have benefited enormously from other people’s sharing of such information.
  • Starting my own blog has also been a great decision. My posts have allowed me to share some thoughts quickly and easily with anyone who cares to read them, and to engage in a conversation with those who have taken the trouble to comment. Allowing my research and ideas to reach a much wider readership has been a major benefit of blogging.
  • I discovered Pinterest, and have used it extensively to gather material for research purposes. Several of my recent publications have now included hyperlinks to one or more of my Pinterest boards to allow readers to view the materials to which I refer. I recently presented at an academic conference using two of my Pinterest boards simply by calling up the links on the laptop provided on the podium and showing relevant images as I talked.
  • I have found that uploading my PowerPoint presentations to SlideShare works well to give others ready access to them. I now try to upload the slides to SlideShare before my presentation, so that when I deliver it I can include in my final slide the links not only to my blog and Twitter account, but also to the SlideShare of the talk I had just presented. Audience members can then access the slides immediately if they so desire. I then tweet the link so anyone else who might be interested can take a look.
  • Curating tools like Delicious, Scoop.it or Bundlr are essential for collecting posts and news items from the web under topics that you have specified. Here again these collections can be used in academic publications as useful links to further information. You can also tweet the links or post them on Facebook etc. so that others know about them.
  • Specialist Facebook pages can be made to link to others working on or interested in a topic and build a community. I made three such pages last year.
  • Storify is a useful tool that you can use to quickly gather material from the web, including Twitter posts and Instagram images, and collate a ‘story’ by bringing a diverse array of such material together. I made several ‘stories’ last year using this tool, several of which I have used in the same way as I have used my Pinterest boards and Scoop.it and Delicious collections, by gathering research material and also linking to the ‘stories’ in my publications. As part of researching my new book The Social Worlds of the Unborn (due to appear later this year in the Palgrave Pivot series) for example, I made a Storify on news coverage of the announcement of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy late last year. I was able to tweet the link to the Storify the day after the announcement, then use a link to it in a blog post and have included it in my new book as well (along with links to my relevant Pinterest boards and Scoop.it collections on the unborn).
  • A curating tool that you can program to automatically bring together articles from certain websites or by topic is a boon. I use Prismatic for this.
  • I have also learnt about ‘strategic tweeting’: that is, selecting the best time of the day to tweet when people will be likely to be checking their feed, taking into account different time zones. Although I am based in Australia I have many followers in the northern hemisphere, so I have learnt to allow for this when tweeting. If there is something that you really want to catch people’s attention with, you will probably have to tweet it several times at different times of the day or on different days.
  • You can use the ‘altmetrics’ provided by social media tools (eg. number of Twitter followers, number of views of your blog) along with the more usual metrics on citations produced by Web of Science or Google Scholar to demonstrate in job or grant applications that you are participating in engagement with the public as well as making an impact on your field.

Using the tools I mention above has allowed me to keep on top of developments in my current areas of research interest, many of which are rapidly changing as new research or technologies emerge.

As a final observation: I have learnt that the immediacy and range of digital publishing is a feature that no academic should discount. If you want your research findings and ideas to stay behind paywalls, accessed largely only by the relatively small number of academics in your field, and wait for months or even years for even these readers to be able to do so while your material proceeds through the publication process, then avoid using social and other digital forms of publishing. If you would like to see your findings and ideas instantly available to a wide range of readers, then using digital media is the way to go.

See also my previous posts A sociologist’s adventures in social media land and Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice.

How sociologists (and other social scientists) can use Pinterest

English: Red Pinterest logo

English: Red Pinterest logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have recently discovered Pinterest, a social media platform which has recently become very popular. The concept of Pinterest is overwhelmingly visual and draws upon the idea of older techniques of collage or scrapbooking: collecting interesting images, grouping them together under a theme and displaying them to others. As a visual bookmarking site, self-described as a ‘virtual pinboard’, Pinterest allows users to ‘pin’, or transfer digital images to an interest ‘board’, or webpage that they make themselves and give a title to. The images are then collected together on this board and made available for others to see. Users may ‘repin’ images from other people’s boards, pin images they have found on other websites or use images of their own (their own photographs or infographics, for example). A wealth of high-quality and diverse images are available to use for Pinterest purposes.

One important feature of the site is that each pinned image has a commentary box below it which allows the user to provide details of the image or comment on it. There is quite a bit of space provided for such commentary: up to 500 characters. The website is set up so that pinning or repining is extremely quick and easy. Users can install a ‘Pin It’ button (bookmarklet) on their computer so that when they come across an image they wish to use it is simply a matter of clicking on the button and the image is added to one of their specified boards. Other people may ‘follow’ boards, comment on them and may be invited to contribute pins to them.

Statistiques: la croissance de Pinterest

Statistiques: la croissance de Pinterest (Photo credit: La Fabrique de Blogs)

When I first investigated Pinterest it seemed that it was simply a forum for people to collect and post images of cute children or animals, fashion outfits, holiday options, objects they would like to buy, home décor, wedding ideas, recipes and so on. These do indeed seem to be among the most popular of board topics and the website’s own description of what it offers focuses on these kinds of uses. However the platform is becomingly increasingly used not only used for private purposes, but also to publicise commercial enterprises or sell goods, create employment resumes and even for political campaigning. I notice that school teachers have also begun using Pinterest to display lesson plans and collect relevant material for their work to share with other teachers or with their students.

It seems that few academics are using Pinterest at the moment, or have even heard of it. But closer inspection and reflection on the capacities of the platform led me to think that Pininterest had the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences).

Because of its emphasis on the visual, it is most relevant for the purposes of curating and displaying images that are related to the subject matter one is researching or teaching about. Pinterest boards can be used by sociologists for the following purposes:

  • To display images which are related to the topic of a book or research article you have published. The weblink for the relevant board can be given in the article or book so that interested readers can view the images which you have collected on that topic. The commentary box allows you to provide some analysis or contextualising material under each image.
  • To display infographics: data represented as graphs, tables, social maps, flow-charts and figures relevant to the board topic.
  • As a repository for images you have collected that can be used and analysed as part of a current or planned research project.
  • To display images of book covers written by others on topics related to your boards that you have found especially useful or interesting.
  • Boards can be used to publicise and promote your own academic writing. This only really works with books and blog posts or website pages, given that Pinterest is overwhelmingly a visual medium and has limited space for text. However if you wanted to promote your research article, you could include an image of the journal’s cover and give the title of your article in the commentary box below, along with a link to its online version.
  • Universities or individual academic departments or research groups can set up their own Pinterest sites and use boards to promote research and teaching initiatives.

Some ideas for university teaching include:

  • Giving your students access to a set of images that are related to the unit subject are teaching. The images can be displayed on your computer during class-time, or the link can be provided to students for them to view the boards out of class time. You can use your own boards or others’ boards. (If there is a good board already existing on a particular topic there is probably no point replicating yourself unless you curate a substantially different set of images or one specifically tailored to the content of the subjects you are teaching.)
  • Engaging students and promoting their understanding of the visual and cultural dimensions of a topic by asking them to make their own boards and curate images relevant to a topic, or together contribute to one big shared board. Part of this activity could be asking students to provide analytical commentary for images, or to write an accompanying essay that analyses the images or contextualises them in relation to academic scholarship on the topic.
  • Collaborating with other academics to share ideas and resources for teaching.

Last, there is the opportunity for sociologists and other social scientists who are interested in researching digital cultures or commodity culture to use Pinterest boards that others put together as a source of research data. The questions of why Pinterest is currently so popular, what types of photographs and topics are selected by users and what all this may imply for concepts of identity and the presentation of the self, media use, social relations and so on offer great potential for academic research.

Some commentators on blog sites and newspaper opinion pages have already begun to speculate about how and why users are using Pinterest. One commentator has argued that using Pinterest to display commodities one would like to buy is a kind of ersatz consumption, satisfying the desire for the real thing and therefore replacing consumption (‘Can Pinterest and Svpply help you reduce your consumption?’). Others have commented on the representation of women’s bodies on Pinterest boards (‘Pinterest’s  Thinspiration problem’ ) and how women use Pinterest (‘Pinterest and feminism’). It has been suggested that Pinterest allows users to display their taste to others (‘The real reason Pinterest is so popular’) and engage in creative pursuits involving the collection of striking or beautiful images, just as people once enjoyed making collages, photo albums, scrapbooks or collecting and displaying stamps (‘A picture gets a thousand likes’).

So far I have made seven boards of my own on Pinterest. Each of them is related to a recent or current research topic. For example, the third edition of one of my books, Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body, was recently published. The book discusses the ways in which medicine, health and illness are understood, represented and experienced via social and cultural processes. There are many examples in the book of the ways in which medical practitioners, patients and particular illnesses or diseases have been represented in popular culture. I have created a virtual pinboard that I have entitled ‘Medicine as Culture’ and collected images there that are relevant to the subject matter discussed in the book. Images on this board include an 18th century wax anatomical model of a skull, doctors from medical television shows, doctors working in a surgical theatre in different historical eras, contemporary and historical anatomical drawings, plastinated bodies from the BodyWorlds exhibition, digital m-health technologies, artistic representations of the body, anatomy and illness, health promotion campaign materials and the pages from a latter-day doctor’s journal. I also included images of the cover of my Medicine as Culture book and other related books I have published, as well as books by others which were seminal to my own work in this area.

Some other interesting Pinterest boards on sociological topics I have discovered include:

  • The Sociological Cinema: many boards, including ‘The Environment”, ‘Social Theorists’, ‘War and Military’, ‘Gender and Physical Violence’. ‘Teaching Sociology’ and ‘Bodies’.
  • Sociological Images: includes a range of boards on topics such as ‘Racial/Ethnic Objectification’, ‘Deconstructing Disney’,’ Social Construction of Everything’ and ‘Social Construction of Race’.
  • LSE Review of Books: boards include such topics as ‘Sociology and Anthropology’, ‘Politics and International Relations’, ‘Philosophy and the Humanities’ and ‘Urban Studies and Architecture’.
  • Prof Jess: her boards include ‘Sociology of Emotion’, ‘Sociology (Music)’ and ‘Sociology of Sport(s)’.

Further information about Pinterest for beginners can be found here.