It seems as though the role, value, and impact of social media in scholarly communications is a continuous debate. Do researchers use social media? Does social media boost citations? Are citations really all that matter? Does social media impact the reputation of publishers, authors, or the particular discipline of study? Are some disciplines more likely than others to derive value from social media? The list of questions and the opinions and data supporting them vary greatly.
These findings provide clear evidence that socializing research is beneficial to both authors and publishers: making the most of the available technology and tools to make this element of reputation management as streamlined and efficient as possible is genuinely time and investment well spent.
This month we asked the Chefs: What is The Role of Social Media in Scholarly Publishing?
Phill Jones: Do you mean ‘What is the role of social media in scholarly communication?’ I’m going to assume so and answer accordingly. Many people assume that when researchers engage with social media, they’re doing so as a form of public outreach. That’s not always true, particularly when it comes to twitter, which seems to be the most actively used social media platform for academics. Researchers use twitter for conference tweeting, finding collaborators, and exchanging content. They also commonly use it for a basic form of social reading where they tweet quotes from articles that they’re reading. Twitter is also a good place to get an insight into researchers’ often nerdy and sometimes dark sense of humor. There are spoof accounts like @shitmyreviewerssay, @IamOxfordComma, and the several accounts that spoof Elsevier, as well as hashtag games like #overlyhonestmethods and #scientistherdnames.
Facebook has a fair amount of academic content on it, but in a different way. The facebook group I F*****g Love Science used to be a place for researchers to swap links and ideas but has been co-opted by the website IFLScience.com that, in common with most academic content on facebook, is aimed at interested non-academics. Then there’s Reddit, which has an active academic community, particularly among graduate students and postdocs. Because it’s reddit, the community is also majority male. That leaves LinkedIn, which researchers don’t really use although many have stub profiles. Speaking of stub profiles, that brings us to ResearchGate and Academia.edu. According to Richard Van Noorden, ResearchGate has the largest number of registered academic users. While that may be true, it doesn’t seem to me to be operating as social media or networking sites. Essentially, they’re both content swapping sites. Think less facebook for scientists and more Napster. Does content sharing qualify as social media? That’s a matter of definition, but if it does, I can’t not mention Sci-Hub, but that’s all I’m going to do because too much has been said about that already.
Meanwhile, some journal editors and publishers are making use of social media, social media monitoring tools and altmetrics in conjunction with more traditional citation and usage metrics, to gain fast insight into how much attention there is for journals and specific articles. By understanding the demographics of who’s saying what, and where they’re saying it, it’s possible to inform editorial and even commercial strategy decisions, like which content to include in anthologies, or which markets to target. With more granularity, it’s even possible to understand which content is more relevant to specific countries, career stages, or institution type to help create a more targeted brand identity for each journal.
Kent Anderson: I think there are multiple roles social media has adapted to fill in academic and scholarly publishing over the past decade or so.
The most effective and obvious role has been to increase the scope of awareness around selected articles. Science and scholarship are best when they are social endeavors, and publication is a major form of social sharing — science has to be seen to be science, has to reach learners to be education.
But beyond the obvious, there are layers for professionals that occur outside the social platforms we typically think about. This is the so-called “dark social.” It consists mainly of email, and includes sharing of photocopies and notes. It remains powerful for serious sharing, and is often underrated in the dazzle of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Email is also a main tool for scientific collaboration in multi-center trials, for instance, and has huge switching costs (abandoning a primary daily interface and file structure) that make it hard to disrupt. There are other forms of more serious social collaboration (Yahoo Groups, WebEx, webinars, and so forth) that let smaller groups work virtually, contrasted with the more general and loosely affiliated groups associated with the larger platforms.
“Big social” seems to be about promoting existing content, while “small social” seems to be about collaborating on new things.
Social media has created some new ways of marketing to subscribers, readers, and authors, but “social” tends to be low-yield compared to other channels. It’s a novel but not especially valuable source of new business.
To be more pessimistic, another role has been to keep the hype machine busy creating and destroying value. Millions have been spent pursuing the ghost orbs of “community platforms,” or running in fear of those community platforms that have apparently succeeded. The “success stories” seem to assume the guise of success via some form of content appropriation. Some hype cycles are longer than others, and this one seems particularly long, yet it has yet to truly show a revenue-positive future. Local hype bubbles can take a while to pop, as well.
All this suggests to me that social media is a long-term addition to the scholarly infrastructure as far as it creates awareness, and that professional, semi-private utilization of social sharing along the lines of “dark social” sharing is where the really serious change is happening.
Joe Esposito: The current state of social media in scholarly communications is in marketing: blogs, tweets, Pinterest and Facebook posts are used to call attention to items of importance to their publisher or producer, and those items range from important discoveries to scheduled events to published research. The altmetrics movement is trying to make more of social media, granting it a status that is equivalent to other, longer-established metrics. I am skeptical about this, as what altmetrics essentially measures is marketing activity, not the merits of discoveries and publications (yes, the two can be related).
A future state of social media will be more sophisticated and substantive than this. I wrote a piece on the Kitchen on this point two years ago: “Marketing In The Stream“. Increasingly ideas are developed in conversations, which social media is adept at. What’s necessary is to formalize these conversations, taking them from casual to-and-fro to directed group projects. I don’t think we are there yet, though. Social media is in its infancy and should be encouraged to develop, but its role for the foreseeable future is to make people aware of primary work that lies elsewhere.
Charlie Rapple: My first thought is to ponder what is meant by “social media”, and by “scholarly publishing”. By “social media”, do we include blogs, say, or multimedia sharing sites? And by “scholarly publishing”, are we talking specifically about “formal” publication (monograph, journal article, etc) or are we thinking broadly about the process of communicating academic insight, research results, etc?
Let’s start by interpreting both of those as widely as possible. Social media can help researchers to learn about each others’ work, build up relationships with others in their field (outside the immediate sphere of their lab or department), and thereby create a useful network with whom ideas and results can be shared, discussed and revised. All of this augments traditional ways of doing this, for example (1) by more readily facilitating the types of back-and-forth discussion that might once have taken place in publication channels (advantage: more timely; disadvantage: ephemeral) – or, example (2), going to conferences – you can meet and interact with a wider range of your fellow delegates if you embrace the social media options, and indeed if you don’t get funding for all the conferences you want to attend, social media helps you attend and interact virtually.
As an example of this, one researcher that I interviewed ahead of my UKSG talk this year talked about the role of social media in helping “democratize reputation.” She felt liberated by the ability to create her own networks, and share and discuss her work with other interested parties beyond the circle of her supervisor. At a more practical level, the precise role of social media varies by channel. For example, you might build up your connections via Twitter or LinkedIn where it’s relatively quick and easy to skim and build up a picture of people’s interests and areas of expertise, and to interact with them in a light-touch way. Meanwhile, you might upload relevant code, images, or slides on Github, Figshare or Slideshare (respectively) and then write a blog post or create a Kudos page to connect them all together, explain the overall story of your research, and connect these materials to any related “formal” publications. When you’re ready to spread the word, you’ll probably go back to Twitter and LinkedIn, but if a discussion really gets active you can ask people to expand on their thoughts in blog comments, or even join you for a video discussion on Blab. All of these have a role in helping to increase awareness of and interest in those “formal” publications.
In a world where so much new research is being undertaken and published, it’s no longer guaranteed that a scholarly publication will be found by those most likely to be interested in it, or able to build on its ideas or results. So while there are many and varied ways in which social media (and digital networks / interactions) can support broader scholarly communication processes, if we boil it right down to their value in relation to publications, social media augments publishers’ other discoverability and engagement strategies, and helps authors play a more direct role in ensuring their scholarly publications are found and discussed by likely readers. (Bonus link to a recent HBR piece with some nice examples how academics have benefited from social media).
Jill O’Neill: There are two functions for social media in the current scholarly publishing environment. Its primary function is marketing, but that marketing function may not simply be a case of tweeting or posting to Facebook breathless product updates, fawning customer endorsements, or press releases about the latest merger & acquisition. The more polished marketing approach on social media platforms is positioning of scholarship as relevant to current events, allowing access to knowledge while public interest is high. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, I thought it was commendable of @Annual Reviews to provide access to an in-depth review article of psychological literature outlining the contemporary context for LGBT youth.
Meanwhile @JSTOR Daily pops up with all kinds of intriguing tidbits – everything from Yellow Fever to Langston Hughes to the historical connection between the lowly Brooklyn beverage, the chocolate Egg Cream, and the 1930’s Mafia. And it’s not just textual material; everyone is more savvy about incorporating images, recognizing the value-add of the visual. (According to Brandwatch, if the tweet contains a visual image, it engenders more click-throughs, more likes and more re-tweets.) Social media is great for current awareness and attracting attention to the newsworthy. The objective (after all) is to grab the attention. That’s why Digital Science renamed their Altmetric number earlier this month to the Altmetric Attention Score, measuring the reach that a particular output may have achieved.
Beyond the initial marketing element however, there is the second and more serious use of social media for communication between the scholars themselves. @SheffieldGothic introduces me to the work of specific scholars from within a particular field of study (#connectthegoths) interacting at their own networking event. There are also all the Open Access advocates – scientists, humanists, other researchers – who consistently present their case for eliminating paywalls or the balance to be archived between Green and Gold OA. Twitter isn’t the only social media platform around, but it’s worth noting that it is a favored channel for a wide-spectrum of those working with scholarly output. Which means that it offers an opportunity to present alternate views from stakeholders as to what is and isn’t viable, what’s been tried already and what hasn’t.
Is the Kitchen asking this question because we are wondering how best to reach the younger, early-career population? The population active on Twitter is about a third in size of that found on Facebook, but the percentage of Millennials (ages 25-34) active on Twitter is slightly higher (21.5%). Complicating matters, however, that same age demographic is even more interested in Instagram and Tumblr. 90% of Instagram users are under the age of 30, which may be why Oxford Dictionaries can be encountered on Instagram and why OUPAcademic has had that whole Tumblr thing covered for years.
Globally, social media is currently well-integrated in the modern mindset. The question we should perhaps be asking is whether other, possibly better, platforms for communication will be emerging.
Karin Wulf: In my experience social media is now a vital part of scholarly communications for history organizations, researchers and publishers. It hasn’t disrupted publishing, but instead plays an important parallel role in promoting and circulating research.
For the archives and special collections libraries that historians rely on, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are important means for engaging and enticing scholars and the general public about their holdings and programs. The Folger Library has been tweeting this week about their important early modern collections, for example; the most recent tweet referenced their collection of mourning materials with an image of a 1592 mourning ring.
For researchers, social media offers a key venue for amplifying early work in progress. Conferences are routinely live-tweeted, and more expertly live-tweeted (but also tend to allow for no-tweet preferences). Short blog posts offer another means for highlighting research that’s underway.
For publishers, social media is primarily used to promote published work. Blog posts with teaser content and tweets advertising a journal TOC or a fresh book list are common. What’s less common but may become much more so in short order are podcasts. Right now history podcasts are primarily nondenominational, and promote topical history with only a few focused on specific works of scholarship. That may change as more authors and publishers see podcasting as an opportunity to share research with other scholars and the interested public alike.
Now it’s your turn!
What do you feel is the role of social media in scholarly publishing?