Why have generic, popular services proved so enticing for digital academics? From 2011 to 2019

My notes on Rowlands, I., Nicholas, D., Russell, B., Canty, N., & Watkinson, A. (2011). Social media use in the research workflow. Learned Publishing, 24(3), 183-195.

I was fascinated to stumble across this paper from 2011 which I’d somehow managed to miss in the past, reporting on a project funded by Emerald investigating social media use amongst academics. The authors reflect on what they see as a recent change in scholarly attitudes, noting that “[o]nce things change in the digital world they change unbelievably quickly. As they write elsewhere on pg 183:

Researchers appear to have moved from outright scepticism, to pockets of scepticism to virtually no scepticism at all. Whereas it was cool to rubbish social media three years ago, it now appears to be cool to listen and praise

The research used a survey sent through a number of participating publishers (Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Emerald, Kluwer, and CUP) supplemented by an e-mail to staff across UCL and delegates at the 2010 Charleston Conference. They received 4,012 responses out of nearly 10,000 invitations to participate, including publishers, librarians and university administrators. Responses were received from 215 countries and included 1,923 respondents who were actively using social media. These were compared to a contrast group of 491 researchers who had yet to use social media, with questions raised by the research further explored through a focus group, but the relevant methodological details for either group are confusingly absent from the paper.

They asked about eight categories of tool: social networking; blogging; microblogging; collaborative authoring tools for sharing and editing documents; social tagging and bookmarking; scheduling and meeting tools; conferencing; image or video sharing. What now seem like the most obvious examples of social media figure relatively marginally amongst their uses: 27% used social networking tools, 23.2% used imager video sharing tools, 14.6% blogged, 9.2% microblogged and 8.9% used social book marking services (pg 185). It’s interesting to note that 63% used tools in only one or two of the eight categories they inquired into, with a tiny few using 6 (2.6%), 7 (1%) or 8 (0.7%) (pg 186). Blogging/microblogging and Social networking/microblogging were the two most common pairings of tools by researchers. Interestingly, they found that men tended to have a stronger preference for LinkedIn over other social networking services and younger respondents preferred Facebook to LinkedIn.

They note that familiar brands dominate the lists within each category, what they describe as “generic, popular services” on pg 186, speculating that there might be a market niche for much specialised tools designed for academics in the future. It’s interesting to theorise about why this might be so: they are familiar, widely used, easy to pick up, come with an existing social network and have the promise of access to a much broader audience beyond that network. As they put it later in the paper, these are tools which are “generally very intuitive and require little or no third-party maintenance” (pg 191). As they put it on pg 194, researchers are demonstrably drawn to these tools and “it is worth investing time in these mass market tools as their research colleagues worldwide are committing to the same tools”. They stress this point again in the conclusion: researchers are “largely appropriating generic tools rather than using specialist or custom-built solutions and both publishers and librarians need to adapt to this reality”.

Scientists were the biggest users, something which they suggest can be partly explained by the team structures within which they work. It would be interesting to speculate whether these relatively minor divergences (e.g. 95% of earth science respondents vs 84% of social science respondents) might have been closed as digital social scientists have ‘caught’ up. Younger respondents were more likely to use microblogging, social tagging, and bookmarking, though they caution against age-based interpretations of social media uptake, suggesting that the significant difference is the “passion exhibited for social media by the young” rather than their choice of tools as such (pg 188). It’s important to meet people where they are and it might be more effective, as in their example, participating in Facebook communities than creating their own branded spaces.

To make sense of the implications for the research process, they identify seven stages while noting these are analytical constructs which simplify the messy reality of research: identifying research opportunities, finding collaborators, securing support, reviewing the literature, collecting research data, analysing research data, disseminating findings, and finally managing the research process (pg 190). Their findings provide some reason to believe that social media tends to  be used across these categories, rather than being confined to any particular one. Their findings on perceived benefits amongst these users are very interesting, presented on pg 192:

Social media was used to compliment existing forms of dissemination, rather than displace them. It was interesting that when it came to perceived obstacles, a lack of clarity over the precise benefits was most pronounced; while many early adopters discovered the benefits “through personal curiosity, and trial and error” the fact these weren’t clear to others hindered their possible adoption (pg 192).

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