For the 2013 Humanities and Social Sciences First-Year Development Workshop, I offered a new session that explored how academics are using social media in order to raise their research profiles. The participants were first-year postgraduate researchers and it was clear from listening in to the pre-session chats over coffee that they had some firmly cautious opinions about using social media as part of their research practice.
The session was kicked-off by Lisa Hawksworth, from the Sydney Jones Library, who discussed case studies of researchers who have successfully used social media to highlight their work to the wider public. The session then became an open forum that focused on questions that I asked participants to explore before the workshop.
Two-weeks before the workshop, I set a task for participants to find profiles of three researchers in their field of study and critically assess how they were using social media. During the forum, they revealed their findings which offered insight into how academics use social media to both establish and maintain their profiles amongst fellow academics and the wider public. Some participants were surprised to find that well-established professors in their field were consistently using social media. Reflecting on the profiles they found, the wider group wondered whether such busy academics had assistants to help maintain the high level of engagement with social media that they encountered. Some even pondered whether PGRs were providing technical support!
Regardless of who is actually maintaining Twitter feeds, Linkedin profiles, blogs or other forms of social media, participants recognised that senior academics value social media as a means of promoting their research areas and individual profiles. However, when asked whether they would follow in the footsteps of ‘the good and great’, there was a sense of hesitation in defining when and how they would engage with social media.
The majority of responses suggested that time and content concerns were an important factor in their decision to engage with social media. Some of their responses were:
‘It is something I would have to carefully manage. It would take up so much of my time and I’m already busy!’
‘I’ll wait until I have something worth saying, but yes I would definitely use it’
For others though it was hesitation to ‘take the plunge’ as a creator of social media:
‘I’ve never tried it in a serious way as a contributor, but I am definitely a consumer’
So what barriers do PGRs encounter that prevent them from actively creating social media? It might have something to do with their immediate working environment. According to the authors of the Handbook for Researchers and Supervisors: Digital Technologies for Research Dialogues, the decisions of whether postgraduate researchers embrace social media as a means of sharing information, collaborating and disseminating their research to the wider public and other researchers are often based on the attitudes of their supervisors.  Such attitudes and or preferences for only certain types of social media can have either a facilitating or hindering effect.
The responses I heard during the workshop made me wonder whether workshops that offer a safe environment where PGRs could encounter and explore how to make the leap from consumer to creator would help alleviate the general anxiety that some researchers may feel towards employing social media. While there are resources available for PGRs, such as Vitae’s The Engaged Researcher and the Research Information Network (RIN): Social Media: A Guide for Researchers it seems that a little handholding to explore best practice would be beneficial. But moreover, this also suggests to me that workshops for supervisors would also support and shape how the next generation of researchers engage with social media.
I am keen to learn whether any supervisors are interested in such a workshop! If so, please leave a comment.
Dr Aimee Blackledge, Researcher Developer
Developing Digital Literacies at the University of Liverpool