New edited book now out – The Digital Academic



A book I co-edited with Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson has now been published with Routledge, entitled The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education. Here’s the link to the book on Amazon. We have wonderful contributions from researchers in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, the USA and Canada.

This is the list of contents:

  1. The Digital Academic: Identities, Contexts and Politics: Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
  2. Towards an Academic Self? Blogging During the Doctorate: Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
  3. Going from PhD to Platform: Charlotte Frost
  4. Academic Persona: The Construction of Online Reputation in the Modern Academy: David Marshall, Kim Barbour and Christopher Moore
  5. Academic Twitter and Academic Capital: Collapsing Orality and Literacy in Scholarly Publics: Bonnie Stewart
  6. Intersections Online: Academics Who Tweet: Narelle Lemon and Megan McPherson
  7. Sustaining Asian Australian Scholarly Activism Online: Tseen Khoo
  8. Digital Backgrounds, Active Foregrounds: Student and Teacher Experiences with ‘Flipping the Classroom’: Martin Forsey and Sara Page
  9. A Labour of Love: A Critical Examination of the ‘Labour Icebergs’ of Massive Open Online Courses: Katharina Freund, Stephanie Kizimchuk, Jonathon Zapasnik, Katherine Esteves, Inger Mewburn
  10. Digital Methods and Data Labs: The Redistribution of Educational Research to Education Data Science: Ben Williamson
  11. Interview – Sara Goldrick-Rab with Inger Mewburn
  12. Interview – Jessie Daniels with Inger Mewburn


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.

An interview in which I talk about using social media to promote academic research

Late last year I was asked to do an interview about my experiences of using social media for academic purposes by librarians at the University of Sydney. Here’s the YouTube clip.

Research on academic blogging: what does it reveal?

I have written previously on this blog on the pros and cons of using social media for academic work, including a discussion of why I blog and what I have learnt from using these media. As part of a chapter on the digitised sociologist that I am working on for my Digital Sociology book, I have been reviewing other people’s research on academic blogging.

Numerous accounts of using social and other digital media for professional academic purposes can be found on websites such as the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network. Some more traditional academic articles have also been published in journals on these topics. These accounts have identified some interesting trends and implications.

Academic blogging has been described as ‘conversational scholarship’, a means by which academics can attempt to loosen their formal style of writing as part of communicating to a wider audience (Gregg 2006). It is argued that the practice forces academics to think about their research and writing in new ways, bearing in mind the multiplicity of potential audiences and the ways readers can respond to the material presented (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013). Some bloggers use their writing as a way of developing ideas and seeking engagement with others before they formalise their ideas into a more traditional academic piece (Adema 2013, Carrigan 2013, Daniels 2013, Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Maitzen 2012). This use of social media for developing scholarly writing and ideas has been described as being an ‘open source academic’ (Carrigan 2013).

Several scholars discussing academic blogging have noted that they often serve the purpose of sharing information and providing advice as part of a gift economy of producing material to share freely with others. From this perspective scholarship and knowledge are not viewed as a marketable commodity but rather as a social good (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, Hall 2013a, 2013b, Mewburn and Thomson 2013). Here the general sharing ethos and participatory democracy that are viewed as characteristic of social media engagement more generally are interpreted in a more specialist academic context.

Academic blogs and other forms of writing on digital platforms are also beginning to challenge scholarly publishing modes and invent new forms of publication. Blog posts are now often cited in more traditional academic forums, some scholarly journals are incorporating blogs, multimedia or open access repositories as part of their online presence and academic presses are experimenting with new digital modes of publication, including shorter online book formats with faster than usual turn-around times between acceptance of the manuscript and publication. Scholarly publishing is developing as hybrid and multiple, drawing both on legacy forms of publishing and on novel modes introduced by digital formats and platforms.

Public digital scholarship practices such as blogging are also sometimes represented as overtly political and resistant acts. It is argued that these types of practices allow for scholars to experiment with digital publishing and engagement at the same time as resisting the dictates of the scholarly publishing industry and producing new forms of knowledge dissemination (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009). The content itself of blog posts, Twitter comments and other social media communications may be directly political, with these tools providing a forum for academics to challenge government policies and programs (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013). They can also provide an opportunity for academics to share their frustrations about higher education procedures and policies and their own experiences as academic workers (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009, Mewburn and Thomson 2013).

On the negative side, blogging opens up academics to great public scrutiny, not only from their peers but from any other audiences. As I noted in a previous post on the risks of using social media for higher education work, some academic bloggers have found themselves the target of trolling, sexual harassment and even threats of violence in response to their public writing. This is particularly the case for members of marginalised or disadvantaged groups, such as women and racial or ethnic minorities. Those academics who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are also often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity, as well hate messages and even death threats (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013, Chapman 2012, Cottom McMillan 2012, Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013).

Academics themselves using digital media as part of their professional identities need to think carefully about how best to manage their private and public personae when doing so: how formal their self-presentation is, to what extent they make personal comments about themselves or others, the nature of images of themselves that they upload, to what extent they allow or respond to comments from others (Barbour and Marshall 2012). The freedom of expression that forums such as blogs and social media sites offer academics can also be the cause of their downfall. Several cases exist involving the censure or disciplining of academics for statements that they made on social media sites of which their university disapproved (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013).

Posting one’s work on online media may be considered a risky practice because of the loss of control that eventuates. Academics need to be aware of the multitude of ways in which the content created by one author or group of authors may be re-used and transmitted via different modes of publishing (reblogged or excerpted on other people’s blogs, tweeted in tiny ‘grabs’, commented upon and so on). In receiving wider dissemination in the public forums afforded by the new digital technologies, scholarly writing may develop ‘a social life of its own’ (Beer 2013, Beer and Burrows 2013) as it circulates in these forums and control over it is lost by the author.

The possibilities of plagiarism have also been raised by some academics as a risk of engaging in digital public scholarship. Some academics who blog have noticed that their content has been used by others, sometimes verbatim, without any form of attribution to its original source. This experience has led them to reconsider the benefits of blogging (see, for example, an account by Williams 2013).

Some writers have commented on the vulnerability that social media engagement such as blogging may engender in scholars who are used to formal academic writing styles and traditional procedures of publishing, in which one’s writing is vetted by one’s peers before it reaches an audience and people outside academic do not have the opportunity to comments on one’s research (Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Kitchin et al. 2013, Maitzen 2012). Quite simply, engaging as a digitised public scholar may be too confronting for some academics.

In the early years of academic blogging, there was often suspicion of the practice on the part of other academics, and people who maintained blogs were in some cases discriminated against when seeking tenure or promotion or otherwise viewed with disdain for being self-aggrandising or wasting time (Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Maitzen 2012). Although negative views of academic blogging have certainly not disappeared, they appear to be slowly changing as universities seek to prove that they are engaging with the public and conforming to open access mandates and policies. Indeed some academics are now concerned that in the quest to achieve community engagement and impact, universities will begin to pressure academics to use social media tools, albeit under restrictive guidelines developed by the university and in the interests of anodyne public relations rather than challenging ideas or engaging in political activism (Mewburn and Thomson 2013). In a workplace in which many academics are already feeling overworked and under continuing stress to produce research publications as well as attract students (Burrows 2012, Gill 2010), such demands may be viewed as unreasonable.

The research and commentary reviewed here outlines a diversity of perspectives on academic blogging, many of which are relevant to academics’ use of other social media as part of their professional work. The benefits of blogging are clear, but so are the potential pitfalls in what has been a largely under-researched practice. More research and scholarship is required as part of mapping how academic blogging is undertaken, how it might be changing in response to other developments in higher education and the broader politics of the practice.

Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report (2013): American Association of University Professors.
Adema, J. (2013) Practise what you preach: Engaging in humanities research through critical praxis. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16 (5), 491-505.
Barbour, K. and Marshall, D. (2012) The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web. First Monday, (9). Accessed 27 September 2013. Available from
Beer, D. (2013) Public geography and the politics of circulation. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 92-95.
Beer, D. and Burrows, R. (2013) Popular culture, digital archives and the new social life of data. Theory, Culture & Society, 30 (4), 47-71.
Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2), 355-372.
Carrigan, M. (2013) Continous publishing and being an open-source academic. Accessed 22 December 2013. Available from
Chapman, S. (2012) Hate mail and cyber trolls: the view from inside public health. The Conversation, Accessed 3 August 2013. Available from
Cottom McMillan, T. (2012) Risk and ethics in public scholarship. University of Venus, Accessed 4 August 2013. Available from
Daniels, J. (2013) From tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article: how to be a scholar now. Accessed 11 December 2013. Available from
Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and academic identity. Literature Compass, 9 (12), 974-982.
Gill, R. (2010) Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood and R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, 228-244.
Gregg, M. (2006) Feeling ordinary: blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum, 20 (2), 147-160.
Gregg, M. (2009) Banal bohemia: blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk. Convergence, 15 (4), 470-483.
Hall, G. (2013a) About Media Gifts Accessed 7 August 2013. Available from
Hall, G. (2013b) The unbound book: academic publishing in the age of the infinite archive. Journal of Visual Culture, 12 (3), 490-507.
Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. London Review of Education, 8 (1), 75-84.
Kitchin, R. (2014) Engaging publics: writing as praxis. Cultural Geographies, 21 (1), 153-157.
Kitchin, R., Linehan, D., O’Callaghan, C. and Lawton, P. (2013) Public geographies through social media. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 56-72.
Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: blogging and/as academic practice. Journal of Victorian Culture, 1-7.
Mewburn, I. and Thomson, P. (2013) Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (8), 1105.
Wade, L. and Sharp, G. (2013) Sociological Images: Blogging as public sociology. Social Science Computer Review, 31 (2), 221-228.
Williams, L. (2013) Academic blogging: a risk worth taking? The Guardian, Accessed 13 December 2013. Available from

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.

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, 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, 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 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 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.