Doing scholarly research in the age of social media: planning, organizing, curating, connecting, disseminating, impacting

Planning

Firstly, grab a free copy of Xmind and get mind mapping. But it’s more than just a mind-mapping tool. You can connect articles to nodes as you build up your reading and conceptual model as you design your project or write your article. It can also be used for planning as it has simple scheduling tools. You can insert monthly deadlines or a day of the week that you want to do specific tasks denoted as nodes. I have used this to plan conceptually, or strategically my work.

Organizing

Next, get rid of all the paper. I cringe when I go into a meeting and I’m given a load of paper documents, particularly if I’ve already been sent them electronically. I’ve spent money on an iPad mini, so I want to use it. I don’t want to lug a lot of paper around with me. I remember the days my arms stretched under heaps of student papers, or handouts I was taking to lectures. I remember the stack of books I used to take in my suitcase on trips abroad. Those days are long gone. But not for everyone I fear.

If you haven’t discovered Evernote yet, download it. Don’t be put off by its bleak interface. The tools are all there; it’s up to you to use them. You can put it onto every single platform you can think of: Windows (computer, tablet, phone); Linux, Android, iOS, OS X, (so Apple of every description – computer, iPad, iPhone, and now Apple watch). And then you can clip from practically everywhere, browsers, email clients, Office. You can photograph and scan to it directly. You can email to it. You can even copy your Xmind mind maps to it. There are so many apps that link to it. My latest find is Sunrise, the calendar app. Evernote syncs to it and shows your scheduled tasks from Evernote in the calendar. So you can also use it as a planner. In fact with its notes, notebook and stack structure you can use it as a complete information management system. You can tag notes which you can search and use as a filing system, as well as being able to search on words, including within PDFs. It’s free, but if you want to pay a little per year you can do things like scan business cards and link them to profiles on LinkedIn (I’ll come back to LinkedIn later). You can also put any note into presentation mode and present your work directly to an audience.

This is great for organising everything in our academic armoury, as well as everyday life things like invoices, travel documents and so on. But when it comes specifically to downloading, collating and organising your academic article library you need Mendeley. Like Evernote you can download it to your computer and many other devices, as well as being able to access your account online. As well as storing your articles PDFs in separate libraries, it provides a good PDF reader; you can generate reference lists for the articles you are writing using a number of formats such as APA and Harvard, and it is really useful for collaborative work. It also works a bit like a repository that can be publicly accessed; something like ResearchGate.net or academia.edu (more of which later). It’s owned by Elsevier, so beware as they get a bit grumpy when academics upload their articles published by Elsevier journals to public repositories when they shouldn’t really (if you want to check on your articles, and what you should or should not upload go to http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/, type in the name of the journal and it will tell you what version of your article you can upload). As a researcher you can also access public libraries on Mendeley (as well as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, Academia, SSRN). Zotero is a bit like Mendeley, and works best as an extension in Firefox. I used to use it quite a lot. It’s still useful, but perhaps more useful as you can import your work directly from Zotero to Mendeley and keep them in sync.

Curating

So, now we’ve got some tools to get a few ideas, plan, schedule, organise and have now thought about collecting information and what to do with this, we need to expand our traditional ideas about where information comes from and what to do with it. Information is far more dynamic and interactive than it was even a few years ago. Academics do not just work on a research project and write it up in an article, and publish it in journals. Well, some do, and this is generally what we are still rewarded for by our academic employers and often our peers by the glamour and glitter of having published in four 4* journals, making us for example a star in the British REF system. Real academic work is about interacting with the changing nature of information. This involves collection, assimilation and dissemination. But yet another concept has been added to the range of functions an academic might perform: that of curator. We’ve always done this, but mainly confined it to the classroom: pointing out to students what to read, sources of information and so on. The game has been raised slightly, and we need to engage. So, if you don’t have a web presence, if you don’t interact with social media, if you don’t blog, and you don’t Tweet, then you are missing opportunities to collect, assimilate, and disseminate, interact and, make an impact. So, this is what you do.

Connecting

Go to WordPress and get yourself a free website and blog (blogger.com is an alternative, but I prefer WordPress). It’s not that difficult to set up. Once you’ve set it all up and started to post (assuming you’ve got something to say), open a Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn account if you haven’t already got these. Twitter, like Facebook (only a personal choice that I haven’t listed it) can be a complete time waster. But, I only use it in a professional rather than a personal way. So I avoid following personal friends and family. Google+ is great, but unfortunately it isn’t used much at the moment by academic colleague. That’s a shame as it’s a useful platform including Hangouts where you can hold virtual meetings. Also, because it’s Google it directs internet traffic there (Google are in the process of changing it and separating out its different elements like Hangouts). I would also include ResearchGate in my list as it doubles as a social media platform. Academia.edu isn’t as useful on that score. The useful thing is that you can link your WordPress blog to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, so that when you post to your blog it will also post to those social media outlets. So this will direct your followers to your website/blog.

I’ve used WordPress blogs/websites in two ways. The first is as above, as a general blog and professional information platform available to anyone with access to the internet. The other way is as a collaborative tool for coordinating international research projects. This is managed as a private site with access only to those project members and collaborators who have an invitation to access the site. This, for example, has been useful for connecting colleagues in a project on China in Africa, from three continents, having access through the website to project documents through Box (you can also use, for example, Dropbox, which I use all the time for keeping all my live documents in sync across platforms and machines), being able to develop work and comment through the blog facility, and generally keeping in touch.

Disseminating

And now that you have connected, back to the curating bit, and on to disseminating. Remember, as academics we are also teachers. We are here to pass on our knowledge, to facilitate others to develop critical faculties and knowledge, and also to pass on useful information and scholarship from others. There is a wealth of this on the internet, not all coming from other academics. We can collect a lot of this through RSS feeds. So, if you look on most blogs and websites you will normally find a RSS symbol that you can click on. In your own WordPress website you can also set this up so others can gather information from you and curate it to others. There are lots of apps and programs out there to collect information from RSS feeds, and to organise feeds for you. On Mac I use Vienna and on iPad Newsify. A really fancy one that presents information nicely in magazine style is Flipboard, which works across platforms. Once you’ve captured information using these apps, anything you find that could be useful or interesting you can save to Pocket. This has a nice interface, but more usefully, it integrates with many other apps and programs and browsers. Once you’ve got it in Pocket you can then start disseminating your curated information. You can send it, with or without your comments and content to Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. If you really want to get professional and do a lot of this, you can send it to Buffer. This will schedule when these are posted to your social media accounts. So now you are blogging with links to social media, you are helping and educating others through curating information (hopefully in a critical and useful way). You can now interact with the information you find on social media sites by commenting, retweeting (in the case of Twitter – another form of curating) and you can ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ others’ posts and Tweets. So, just like we would in class – we are interacting, praising, passing on others’ knowledge, generating and passing on our own knowledge and ideas.

I’m a latecomer to LinkedIn, and a somewhat reluctant one. But having searched in vain for colleagues on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, I discovered they were all on LinkedIn. Not only that, I discovered a whole treasure trove of interest groups in areas such as cross-cultural management and academic writing and research. So I could re-post my blog posts on LinkedIn, reaching more people, and then re-post them to the various interest and professional groups and actually get people to comment.

This might seem a long way from traditional scholarly research, but bear with me. Traditionally what we do is: literature review/conceptualisation, empirical research, analysis, writes up, publish. There might be some interaction and discussion within a research team, or presenting a preliminary paper at a conference (although in my experience, feedback we get in conference sessions is more about colleagues strutting their stuff, rather than about developing anyone’s work). Although I’m always cynical when people say the internet has made everything more democratic, certainly it gives us access to more uncensored and (in the case of scholarship) more un-refereed information. I’m not sure if it makes the world any more democratic (but that’s a slightly different, if connected, story). Yet this may be in part what potentially could happen with scholarly research. Yet, there is a more pragmatic reason to approach research in the way I am suggesting: it connects us more firmly with the real, albeit virtual, world. The virtual world is becoming more part of the real world. Why does practically every organisation in the modern world have a web and social media presence? To get it noticed, or more accurately to give it a presence (without a web presence they don’t exist). So, to apply this to academic researchers, without a web and social media presence we have no presence in the real world (and perhaps we can all save a lot of money by not going to conferences! But that wouldn’t be as much fun.)

I’m not going to dwell too much on the phases of traditional research (literature review, empirical research, analysis, write up), as to a large extent I’ve covered the literature search and conceptualization processes above through tools such as Mendeley and Xmind. Analysis is largely undertaken through well-established technologies such as SPSS and NVivo. Write-up and publication is a different matter. It is changing, albeit not too radically, and hindered by the simplistic controls of academic employers on the one hand (the use of simple and skewed metrics and the emphasis on journal article writing), but also facilitated by an increased emphasis on the societal impact of academic work (value for money). I would say that it is important to fulfill your quota of 3* or 4* articles as a prerequisite for academic survival (continued employment), but after that you can start to do the proper job of academics: e.g. achieving immortality through publishing books – these are often well cited, and bear in mind all the great scholars and founding fathers (mothers?) of our disciplines are known through their books not their ephemeral articles (more on ephemerality later).

I recently curated a blog post titled ‘The case against the journal article: The age of publisher authority is going, going, gone — and we’ll be just fine.’ by Heidi Laine (that is, I posted the link on Twitter because I thought it was interesting, informative and added to the debate: LSE blogs). Heidi, a (mere) PhD student at the University of Helsinki, argues that the traditionally held views of the functions of journal articles are actually poorly served by this media: viz, dissemination of scientific knowledge (‘Have you heard of the internet?’); discussing science among peers (‘Publishing an article takes ages’); maintaining the quality of scientific research through peer review (‘Journal are not doing too good a job here either’ referring to the number of fraud/retraction cases); helping to calculate the impact factor and so determine academic merit (‘I wonder how anyone in the non-academic world ever gets recruited or funded. I mean they don’t have the impact factor!’). What might at least partially replace journal articles is where the fun begins.

Impacting

But for the time being we need to think about how else we can disseminate scientific knowledge in a way that is accessible and open to critique, as well as having some impact on society, opinion leaders and policy makers. I’ve discussed how we can make a start by developing our own blogs, and using social media such as twitter and LinkedIn to get our ideas noticed. Yet it’s never been easier to become a journalist: enter The Conversation.

This is a news platform run by professional journalists/publishers and funded by a number of universities (unfortunately not my own). You need to sign up, put forward a pitch, and wait for a response. There are others such as Medium, which do a similar job. Apart from disseminating your (newsworthy) research to a wider, lay, audience, this is where you are most likely to attract the attention of professional journalists working for mainstream news outlets.

Yet towards these alternatives forms of dissemination and academic interaction there are concerns. This includes the ephemeral nature of such publication outlets. This is why I would urge a mix of media, including article writing, and books (the latter, I think are potentially the most permanent), and again new tools are coming forward, so we don’t just have to rely on MSWord. If you are a Mac user check out Scrivener for example, which has tools for writing long documents with chapters (PhD thesis or a book) as well as useful research tools.

This has been a personal view, as I have outlined the way I tend to work, or try to work. It’s time consuming, but again, there is a lot of help and information out there on how best to organization and deal with the pressures of multiple media dissemination. Personally, I put it all on Xmind, so that I’ve got an overview on how it all fits together, priorities, and access to documents at each ‘node’, just a click away so I know where everything is. But gaining access to new forms of information and communication and ways of doing research from start to dissemination to impact is exciting and ever changing. Hence, look out for further updates of this post.

(Note, and disclaimer: I don’t have any commercial interests in any of the applications or services I’ve mentioned above. They represent a personal choice in the way I’ve developed my work over the last few years).

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