Thursday, 13 April 2017

Social Media, Networks and Impact


A couple of years ago Nadine Muller, a cultural historian and English literature researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, visited the University of Kent to talk about how she used social media in her work. One thing that stood out was how much of her efforts were based around creating a virtual community.

Muller studies the cultural understanding of widowhood. By engaging with widows’ groups on Twitter, she has gained access to a more personal well of experience. She has also connected with people beyond academia who might benefit from or be interested in her research, including policymakers, teachers and informed lay people.

Research, especially in the humanities and some areas of the social sciences, can be solitary work. Social media, Muller said, allowed her to discuss her work and interact with people without leaving her desk. It also gave her a chance to think aloud, and to run a rough draft of a paper or a research project past people before taking it further.

The same goes for those of us who support academics. At the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Earma) Conference this year, I am linking up with colleagues from the universities of Ghent and Coventry, and University College Dublin, to deliver a session on using social media. 

Our four universities vary hugely in age and outlook, size and structure. And yet we all grapple with similar issues, such as how to engage with academics, how to access research funding, whether to set targets, and how to ensure that we are facilitating and supporting impact. Social media has allowed us to find a virtual community to discuss these issues, to recognise what we are doing well, and to learn from others about the things that we could be doing better.

At an event run by the UK’s Association of Research Managers and Administrators, another social-media maven—bioethicist Andy Miah of the University of Salford—spoke about the wealth of online tools for doing research. He described using Twitter to meet collaborators and co-authors, and Google Drive to work with them. He identified research hotspots and lacunae on JournalMap. And he searched for outputs on ResearchGate and Academia.edu, and cited and referenced them with Mendeley.

Such tools have given us more potential for building communities, for linking with others, than ever before. Like the bicycle at the turn of the 20th century, social media is a technology that has broadened people’s horizons. Communities are no longer limited by tradition, proximity or history.

For example, when the Economic and Social Research Council’s grant success rate fell below 10 per cent, I was able to discuss the news on social media with colleagues from the universities of Manchester, Nottingham and Sussex, as well as the York Environmental Sustainability Institute, and those in similar fields in Canada and the Netherlands. The discussion was eventually collated on Storify, and demonstrated the range and depth that can be brought to bear on an issue through social media. 

Online social platforms have allowed me to engage with funders and those who work with them. I’ve been writing a blog, Research Fundermentals, for six years now. It allows me to share hints and tips from the University of Kent’s training sessions, but also to talk about the research world more broadly.

Don’t, though, confuse the tools with the end result. Just because you’re using social media doesn’t mean that you are having impact. It provides more avenues and routes to connect with end users of your research, but making that connection is not impact in itself. The UK’s national research assessment, the Research Excellence Framework, defined and evaluated impact as “an effect on, change or benefit”—economic, cultural, medical, and so on—to the world beyond academia.

Effect, change, benefit—not links, talk, networks. While social media allows you to connect more easily with those outside academia—and keep track of the number of those connections—you need to be able to demonstrate the change that results from this. Otherwise, for all you know, the community that you’ve built might read your work, yawn and move on.

This is the point that we are going to make at the Earma conference in LuleĆ„, Sweden. Connecting isn’t an end in itself. For social media to prove its worth, we have to make those connections count. 
We need to learn from those conversations, to take the best of what others do and apply it to our own situations. Otherwise all the wide-ranging, cross-continental connections in the world will add up to no more than a tea dance in the local village hall. 

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in June 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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