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Using Social Media for Research & Researcher Development

This week we are running a series of posts on different aspects of social media use in relation to conducting research and for researcher development. It appears to be particularly relevant as the Wall Street Journal Health published an article yesterday (25th April 2011) that illustrated the value of social media in research:

A new clinical trial found that lithium didn’t slow the progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but the findings released Sunday also showed that the use of a social network to enrol patients and report and collect data may deliver dividends for future studies.

The data gathered in this study in relation to the value of social media I find extremely exciting, using social media in research is something I am extremely passionate about. I actively used social media applications to both collect data and to promote me and my work whilst I was conducting my PhD, in fact, I was the first person in my department to have ever created a virtual research environment. This was particularly innovative as my PhD was in Geography (I do love saying was now that I have completed it!) as traditionally geographers engage in extensive amounts of fieldwork, in many cases overseas, where they disappear off to far flung lands, talk to lots of people and then write it up (that is a very simplified understanding of the process). However, for a number of reasons I was unable to undertake the traditional field-based exploration of my subject so I had to look at how else I could collect my data and engage with the subject and relevant stakeholders. I had noticed from the research I had already done that a number of international organisations employed different techniques to create online discussion space. So I decided I could create my own research environment.

For the next two years I worked closely with a web-developer creating and running both my site and trialling and revising different applications to collect my data. In order to develop my skills I did at times attempt to ‘reinvent the wheel’ which I admit now was not necessary as the majority of the applications already exist in the most user-friendly form. The question is knowing how to use them effectively.

My virtual research environment facilitated the collection of a huge range of data, it also enabled me to connect with a larger number of globally-dispersed actors / stakeholders than I would have done traditionally. I conducted a number of interviews through asynchronous message boards and skype as well as through email conversations. Having a presence online also established me as a researcher / consultant and expert in my field thus I was able to network with other policy-makers and organisations enabling me to undertake other projects and gain further experience working with institutions like UNEP.

I believe every researcher needs a social media strategy for developing their practical work as well as for their professional development however, many researchers, particularly within the social sciences remain wary. I hope that the increasing number of institutions within the UK engaging with social media applications means that this will begin to change. I am currently developing a training course for the King’s College London Researcher Development Programme on this very topic. It will be open to PhDs and post-doc researchers and will look at both the nuts and bolts of the technology as well as issues to consider when putting a social media strategy together. Every researcher is different so it is hard to provide a how-to guide or set of tips applicable to everyone but I would consider the following:

Who you are looking to engage with,

How they might already use these applications and what data you are looking to collect

Different applications compliment or work against each other so much of it is trial and error at the beginning and, if like me, you are working cross-culturally you have to think about the practical challenges you face with uncertain electricity supplies and access to the internet however, the digital divide is constantly shrinking and certainly not a barrier to employing digital research methodologies as can be seen here.

How you want to present & market yourself and your research ‘brand’

The ethical implications of employing social media applications in data collection

The relative newness and innovative nature of conducting digital research and applying social media applications in the research process means that there are a large number of unique ethical challenges to consider. I will return to this topic on Friday with a detailed look at digital research ethics.

Social media applications also facilitate the development of like-minded folk for example #phdchat community on twitter. doing a PhD is a very isolating thing and many researchers feel that they are unable to mix and socialise with others in the same ways that undergraduates or taught PG students can. This article illustrates how important communities like #phdchat are and i am very proud to be a part of it. This and sites like the thesis whisperer extend our communities beyond our departments, let us meet other researchers and act as an informal mechanism of peer-review, something which is increasingly important for any would be academic.

I am passionate about the use of social media and the importance of building digital research environments. I hope that this week’s series of blogs will encourage you to think about what social media can offer your and research.

  1. Thanks for a great post and for referring to the post I wrote on PhD chat! I’m also involved in a project on scholarly communication and academic publishing that will try to leverage social media, both in the development/design process and as a means for scholars to communicate. You can read more about it here: http://medea.mah.se/2011/04/journal-of-x-and-z/

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