Social media and the academy (part 1)

The week before last I attended the Fifth Bloomsbury Conference on ePublishing and ePublications. The topic was Social Media and the Academy. The programme for the event and eventually the slides from the presentations will be available on the UCL Department of Information Studies website.

The presentations fell broadly into five categories

  1. Context for the event
  2. Findings from research into scholars’ use of social media
  3. Examples of the use of social media by scholars
  4. The role of intermediaries (publishers/librarians)
  5. Predictions for the future

I will discuss the first two below and a second post will cover the remainder.

Context for the event
The conference began with a discussion about user behaviour with Anthony Watkinson speaking on behalf of the director of CIBER, David Nicholas. According to Nicholas digital scholars are bouncing and promiscuous, they want fast access to information, aren’t sure who to trust online and want tools that are social. He sees that there is a decoupling of what users want from what they are being given by publishers and librarians and questioned whether these intermediaries could ever keep up. As a librarian I found this quite a challenging opening.

Chris Batt came next with a clear message; scholars are human and we need to stop thinking that they behave differently from the everyman. The key message from his talk, and something which came up again and again throughout the conference from the audience was the idea that we shouldn’t be teaching information skills to people, but to systems to make them work better to suit the way people want to behave

The next speakers moved away from user behaviour and on to scholarly communication. Chris Armbruster wants to see publishers embracing social media as more than just an add-on. He sees that the majority (95%) of scholars who don’t publish in the top 1-2% of journals have the power to change the game with their use of social media as a means of publication. He equated the current situation of journal publication with the origins of Facebook. The largest social network in the world which currently has over 750 million active users started life as Harvard Connect an elite, local network for members of select universities in the US and UK. What will change the current system is still up for debate. Armbruster was sceptical about whether the open access model and institutional repositories could change things. The failing he sees here is the lack of interactivity – a document in a repository is currently a flat object.

The last presentation of this session by Dave De Roure seemed to provide some of the answers to Armbruster’s questions. He showed us myExperiment, a social Virtual Research Environment. Through this site scholars can share more than just the output of their research. They can share workflows, data, logs, slides, PDFs etc. Bundled together this becomes a research object, a package that can be used to re-run an experiment. This shows a move away from the static, flat document currently seen in repositories. One step further is executable paper. Dave’s vision is one where the research method is a constant, but the data is allowed to flow. With executable papers you can change the data and see a different set of results and from this you can generate more papers. Examples of this can be seen in Elsevier’s Executable Paper Grand Challenge.

Findings from research into scholars’ use of social media
The first to present in this category was Ian Rowlands, he discussed the findings of a recent CIBER research project Social Media and Scholarly Workflows. Once again we were back looking at scholars’ behaviour. The survey was answered by people using at least one social media tool in their research. Broadly speaking the findings showed that

  • there is a big gap between awareness and use
  • few people use more than two sets of tools in their research
  • generic services rule
  • social media tools are used in all stages of the research lifecycle

Next Carol Tenopir presented her findings from research into social media and scholarly reading. The survey was completed by staff at six UK universities. The hypothesis was that scholars who spend time engaging in social media read less from the scholarly literature. The results showed that this was far from true – scholars who read more are greater consumers of information generally, e.g. from YouTube, blogs. They are also the most active creators of information through social tools. The survey was divided in two to look at consumption and creation. 75% of respondents consumed information from social media, only 46% created it.

The final presentation in this session was from Carolyn Hank who has recently completed a PhD on scholarly blogging. Her central question was how scholars who blog perceive their blog in relation to their cumulative scholarly output. The results provide an insight into both who the scholarly bloggers are and what they view as the purpose of their blogs:

  • 51% of bloggers were Professors or higher
  • the mean professional age was 15 years
  • 89% had an established publication history through traditional means
  • 78% update once or more times a week
  • 61% saw their colleagues and peers as their primary audience
  • 80% said their blog was part of their scholarly record

Hank raised the issue of stability by asking the participants in her survey what they would feel if their blog disappeared. This elicited a variety of responses from sad and angry to relieved, some doubted that this would or could ever happen.

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