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3.2 Research 

The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of much research means that social media tools are well suited to supporting scholarly communities. There are indeed social networking sites aimed specifically at academics. was launched in September 2008 and now has more than 25 million registered users. The platform can be used to share papers, monitor their impact and follow research in a particular field. ResearchGate is another such site.

The social web is built around information discovery, networking and collaboration, precisely the skills required of a modern researcher.” (Cope and Jones 2011)

Social media can be useful to researchers in many ways:

  • dialogue with supervisors; 
  • dialogue with peers; 
  • developing a professional profile; 
  • exchanging and collaborating on work in progress; 
  • reflection; 
  • resource discovery – finding out about ideas and research; 
  • engaging with the community at large; 
  • undertaking research i.e. surveys, recruiting participants, experiments in virtual worlds.
Vitae is a Cambridge-based organisation, supported by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the higher education funding bodies, that is dedicated to realising the potential of researchers worldwide. It has produced a very useful handbook on the use of social media in research for early career researchers and their supervisors. The handbook includes some example personas of researchers and their use of social media and a useful mapping of tools based on the type of activity you are carrying out. Research for the handbook did however reveal that the use of social tools by many researchers is inhibited by their supervisors' reluctance to apply new technologies.

The Vitae handbook also contains a discussion of the ethics of using social media to carry out research because, as it states:

    “Traditional methods for protecting privacy of the participants such as by hiding or anonymising data are no longer sufficient, in social media spaces which are public, searchable, and traceable.” (Minocha and Petre 2012).

Issues include whether materials (such as Twitter feeds) which are in the public domain can be used by researchers in the absence of informed consent, and what happens if researchers use tweets or posts which are subsequently deleted by the authors or if the authors subsequently change their privacy settings. Questions of research ethics were raised in July 2014 when it was revealed that Facebook, in collaboration with a number of universities, had manipulated the news feeds of almost 700,000 users as part of a study on emotion and was, as a result, facing investigation by the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

For all the benefits, there are risks to researchers using social media that are distinct from the risks to other users. One of these is intellectual property rights (IPR) – we look at this further in Section 9, Legal issues – but researchers need to take care that they do not breach copyright on printed publications by posting them to a bibliographic reference management system such as Mendeley or Zotero. Researchers also need to take care that their own IPR is not compromised if their research gets into the public domain at an early stage e.g. via blogging about the work.

 Research for the World Bank (McKenzie and Özler 2011) found that, in the field of economics, blogging can have a huge impact on the dissemination of research papers. Compared to typical abstract views and downloads for this type of paper – a mention in one blog post in Freakonomics is equivalent to three years’ worth of abstract views!

The rapidity with which items of interest spread via social media can, however, lead to particular items of research being picked up on and misreported in the press. UCL lecturer Daniel Miller (2013a,b,c) found that when he blogged about his research with a small group of schoolchildren under the provocative title What will we learn from the fall of Facebook? during a period when journalists were short of news it was soon picked up and sensationalised. “Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as ‘dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole. I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.” (Miller, D. 2013c)

This can of course work both ways: Prof Jon Butterworth, Head of Physics and Astronomy at UCL, used Twitter to correct an article about his research resulting in the article being removed from the BBC website within 30 minutes.


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