Notes for a talk at this event on Saturday. 

In the not too distant past, the use of social media in higher education was seen as a curiosity at best. Perhaps something to be explained or inquired into but certainly not something deemed relevant to scholarship. Yet it’s now increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy, helping build an audience for your publications and an impact for their findings. It expands your professional networks. It makes research more open and researchers more accountable to the people who ultimately fund their work.

If not quite at the level of ‘common sense’ yet, I suspect these points soon will be regarded as such, at least by young scholars. On the surface, we seem to have witnessed a fairly significant change, but is it a positive one?

In many ways I think it’s not because so much of this discussion is preoccupied by individuals and how social media can help their careers. It becomes one more facet in the ideal package of academic skills which are seen to be necessary to thrive in the contemporary academy. Bring in your grants. Publish highly cited papers in high impact journals. Get good teaching reports. Build an audience on social media. The unspoken corollary of social media helping build careers is how being unwilling or unable to engage in it might harm your career. Through their social media use, academics signal their orientation towards accumulating visibility for their institution and generating impact through their research.

At least this is how I think research mangers are beginning to see social media: as a signal for impact willingness and a proxy for impact capacity. A demonstrable capacity to build an audience with social media becomes just another characteristics of what Liz Morrish recently described as the upwardly mobile young ‘Trump academic’ liable to thrive under contemporary conditions.

This way of thinking about social media for academics positions it as ‘just one more thing to do’. You do your research and then you spend time ‘networking’, developing your ‘brand’, building an audience and disseminating your research. It’s seen as an additional demand, above and beyond the many other responsibilities people are already subject to. You do it as a means to an end, in order to help meet demands placed upon you at work.

On this level, it’s a clear example of what the anthropologist Melissa Gregg describes as ‘function creep’: the tendency of new technology to increase the demands placed upon people at work without any comparable increase in reimbursement or recognition. Bit by bit, the job gets more demanding, often in subtle ways which escape our notice on a day-to-day level. We have more to do. We feel tired more frequently. The bottom of our to-do list seems further each on each successive day. But the job market is unwelcoming and self-branding of this sort can feel ‘career protection in uncertain times’ as one particularly off-putting social media guru put it a few years ago.

This instrumental approach to social media is one which universities are beginning to encourage through the training they offer, their expectations of staff and the implicit messages which permeate institutions. It’s one which the rise of alt-metrics risks intensifying, as the responsibility increasingly falls to individual researchers to demonstrate that they’re able to win attention for their publications online (and empowers those journals who are able to help ensure this is the case, supplementing the existing hierarchy of ‘impact factor’ with a new hierarchy of ‘alt metric factor’, rather than breaking down these boundaries).

The problem is that winning attention for your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. As Melissa Gregg puts it, “even uniqueness starts to sound the same when everyone is trying to perform”. If everyone is seeking to build an audience and stand out from the crowd then the challenge of achieving these aims spirals ever upwards, excluding ever more people from the process in gendered and classed ways while this subordination is masked by the powerful rhetoric of openness.

To give one example of trend, George Veletsianos found in a study of educational tweeters that “the top 1 percent of scholars have an average follower base nearly 700 times that of scholars in the bottom 50 percent and nearly 100 times that of scholars in the other 99 percent” (loc 1162-1708). Rather than undermining old hierarchies, social media supplements new ones, with complex emergent effects: sometimes allowing the already celebrated to quickly amass a social media following or to allow those with a big social media following to translate this into academic capital.

The problem is that the encouragement to conflate value with popularity, as demonstrated through the metrics built into the platforms themselves, isn’t something new. It’s an extension of the endless metrics to which academics at UK are subject to in every other aspect of their working lives. This is ‘open’ in the sense of rendering individual workers transparent to their employers. Open in the sense of measuring all aspects of their performance in order to calibrate the precise balance of carrots and sticks they will be subjected to in their workplace. Open in the sense of holding them accountable if any of their actions reflect badly on the university or somehow run contrary to this month’s strategy for the corporate brand.

It’s not a desirable form of openness and we should be critical of it. We should be critical of an account of social media for academics which encourages behaviour that fits with it: using social media to signal your value to your institution, demonstrate your understanding of your employer’s priorities and to accumulate as much prestige for yourself as quickly as you can (obviously to be measured in terms of citation counts, alt metrics scores and follower counts).

But there’s another form of ‘openness’ we can see in how academics use social media. A relational, collaborative and solidaristic mode of engaging across boundaries. This is a mode of engaging which doesn’t see social media as ‘just another thing to do’ but rather as a way to do what we do anyway in a newly open and shared way. While the horizontal regulation of peer review, informal and otherwise, is increasingly being surmounted by the vertical regulation of metrics, there’s a possibility for new forms of shared engagement through social media that should’t be dismissed. They may not change higher education but they can provide a bulwark against some of the more deleterious tendencies we see within it, at least if we resist the pressure to individualise and instrumentalise our use of it.

In a recent book called The Academic Diary, Les Back writes that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. At risk of ruining a nice metaphor, a truly open approach to social media can help lifeblood of scholarship circulate much more widely and freely than it would otherwise. At a time of ever-increasing managerialism, intensifying demands and ever more granular monitoring this feels like something we need to try and protect.

October 29th, Goldsmiths, University of London

Open research is much more than open access. It is about making all aspects of the research process open to all possible interested parties. It involves innovative approaches to communicating results and sharing outputs. It is about accessibility, inclusivity, citizen science, public engagement, radical transparency, reproducibility, data sharing, social media and more.

Supported by the British Academy, this event aims to inspire and educate researchers across all disciplines on how to benefit from opening up their research. Attendance is free, with free lunch, a free wine reception and great prizes to be won.

Keynotes (10 AM – 1 PM)

The morning session will feature short keynotes from champions of open research, including:

– Jo Barratt – Project manager of Open Knowledge Foundation Frictionless Data project

– Mark Carrigan – Sociologist & author of the book Social Media for Academics

– Sophia Collins – Founder of the Nappy Science Gang, a citizen science project that changed NHS policy.

– Gary Hall – Founder of the Open Humanities Press & author of Digitize this book (2008), Pirate Philosophy (2016) & The Uberfication of the University (2016)

– Simon Makin – Former neuroscientist turned science journalist who writes for Nature, Scientific American & New Scientist.

& others to be confirmed

Hackathon (1 PM – 5 PM)

The afternoon session will be organised as a “hackathon”. Keynote speakers and other experts will run hands-on workshops on a range of practical topics and be available to provide 1-on-1 advice.

Working in teams or individually attendees have 4 hours to take concrete steps to make their own research more open. Ideas include sharing a dataset, setting up a research blog or project website, planning an engagement project, pitching a news article, or creating a video biography or a podcast.

There are prizes for everyone who gives a presentation or uploads a project idea to conference website and several grand prizes for the judges’ and audience’s favourite ideas.

Presentations, prizes and wine reception (5 PM – 7 PM)

Judging panel chaired by Professor Nigel Vincent FBA, former British Academy Vice President for Research & HE Policy

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/open-research-for-academics-a-workshop-and-hackathon-tickets-27093168396

The Last Seminar by Stan Cohen must surely merit consideration as the strangest paper ever to appear in a Sociology journal. It tells the story of a gradual invasion of the university campus by those who are neither expected nor welcome: research participants. Encountering  strangely familiar figures in their everyday working lives, befuddled sociologists suddenly begin to recognise that those who have been the objects of past research have gradually returned to confront the researchers who sought to repress them upon completion of the research:

Then Bridges, who I thought had been deliberately avoiding me, walked up to the desk at the end of a class in which he had participated with his usual intense stare.

‘You don’t know anything about it, do you? It’s all a game to you.’I asked him what he meant.

‘Prison’, he said, ‘You think because you’ve spoken to a few cons you understand it all. Well, you don’t, you just don’t.’

He was slowly shaking his head. The tone was polite, but condescending. I’d heard that tone before.

The ensuing confrontation is neither welcome nor pleasant. Those whose existence had been reduced to representational objects begin to subject the researchers to emotional torment, with their mere presence throwing the campus into disarray:

Those of us who had done any empirical research were being infiltrated by our subjects. (‘Infiltrated’, is that the right word? I’m still not sure how to describe what was being done to us. Penetrated? Visited? Invaded?) I could not explain how this had happened but they were certainly here, taking revenge against us for writing about them.

The story ends with Cohen’s narrator desperately bundling up his most treasured books before fleeing the burning campus as gun fire echoes in the distance. It’s a very strange story. But it asks an important question: what would involuntary confrontation with participants in past research look like? What would it feel like? How would a prior knowledge of such future rencountering (re)shape our practice? Certainly these are not new questions. But it would be difficult to find a text which considers them quite as dramatically as Cohen’s.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about in the context of researching the asexual community. I first encountered the notion of asexuality through two new friends who identified as asexual. As I got curious about asexuality – partly because I didn’t ‘get it’ and partly because of its conspicuous absence within the sexualities literature I’d encountered at that point – I started to search online. I very quickly found asexual discussion forums, blogs and youtube videos. I found a website that an asexual PhD student (who eventually switched topics to research the history of asexual identity) had setup in order to help encourage and facilitate what was, at that point, a fairly insubstantial amount of academic research on asexuality. In short: an awful lot was happening online.

It soon became obvious that the internet had been integral to the emergence of an asexual identity and the formation of something which, for lack of a better term, we might call an asexual ‘community’. However the internet was also crucial to the formation of an extremely loose but nonetheless identifiable asexual research community – e-mail, mailing lists, blogs, discussion forums allowed   geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to communicate. This has eventually led to some face-to-face meetings: a seminar at the University of Warwick, a conference panel at the Sexualisation of Culture conference, the formation of an interest group of the National Women’s Studies Association and numerous conference sessions which have emerged from this.

There’s a risk of overstating the point but there is, nonetheless, a clear homology here and it’s a really interesting one. In a way it represents a reshaping of the field of research – the same trends are identifiable in the formation of groups of researchers as can be seen in groups of the researched. It might be the case that asexuality represents an outlier but, even if this is so, it’s helpful because it foregrounds a change which might be difficult to identify elsewhere if it is manifesting itself more gradually. The institutional and territorial gap between researchers and the groups they research – the concern of Cohen’s story – is being radically narrowed by the internet in general and social media in particular. There are some striking examples of this within asexuality studies, such as the formalisation of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s gatekeeping function and the Open Letter to Researchers written by the Asexuality Awareness Week committee, but I find it difficult to see how this could become anything other than a broader trend. Some elements of Cohen’s parable could seem anachronistic given the sensitivity and awareness which many social researchers, particularly insider researchers, exhibit in relation to this ‘gap’. My intention is simply to frame this recognised issue in terms of the many ways in which the technological innovations which are driving this process can be drawn upon to negotiate it proactively. By this I mean things like:

  • Single author or multi-author blogging
  • Tweeting about research
  • Setting up a tumblr blog about research
  • Podcasting (interviews, talks)
  • Facebook pages
  • Videocasting (interviews, talks, documentaries)
  • Live streaming events
  • Engaging with community blogs

These are possibilities which often come up in terms of ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’. But I think these are often sterile concepts, redolent of top-down imperatives and an audit culture – it also risks subsuming the specific publics of the researched who have a stake in the content of that research under the general ‘public’ with whom we are ‘engaging’.

These are powerful tools which, increasingly, require little to no technical expertise to master. Martin Weller talks about these technologies as being ‘fast, cheap and out of control’:

Fast – technology that is easy to learn and quick to set up. The academic does not need to attend a training course to use it or submit a request to their central IT services to set it up. This means they can experiment quickly.

Cheap – tools that are usually free or at least have a freemium model so the individual can fund any extension themselves. This means that it is not necessary to gain authorisation to use them from a budget holder. It also means the user doesn’t need to be concerned about the size of audience or return on investment, which is liberating.

Out of control – these technologies are outside of formal institutional control structures, so they have a more personal element and are more flexible. They are also democratised tools, so the control of them is as much in the hands of students as it is that of the educator

In adopting fast, cheap and out of control tools we make the research process newly open and, in doing so, help ameliorate the methodological and ethical difficulties which can result from too wide a gap between researchers and the groups they are researching. Using these tools proactively helps ensure that changes in the broader field of research which are, by definition, unpredictable can be negotiated more actively than would otherwise be the case. Incorporating them into ongoing practice can also, somewhat paradoxically, lead to much greater impact than could ever be achieved by deliberately seeking ‘impact’ as a compartmentalised activity. The digital footprint which open research leaves manifests itself in a discoverability by activists, journalists, practitioners and policy makers which would be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate through other means. But this discoverability is also achallenge – ethically and methodologically – one which I think Stan Cohen would have found very interesting.

I’m really interested in this concept of ‘open research projects’ which I just encountered on the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list. 

We recently launched our survey <http://digitallyliterate.net/announcement/tltsurvey/&gt; to collect participant data. Click here to go directly to the survey.

<https://cofc.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_d08stZ0o2NwWLWd&gt;

We will follow-up with interviews of participants using survey data and snowball sampling.

This is an open research project. We are sharing the data collection tools openly online. We will also include our researcher notes in open blog posts on the website mentioned above. Finally, we will also share participant interviews openly online

Anyone know of other examples of this?

Dave Beer makes some interesting points in this short article which frames current debates about open access in terms of trends within music culture, which have been driven by broadly similar structural processes and have been playing themselves out for much longer. Some people argue that rendering academic publishing more ‘open’ could prove hugely problematic, as unrestricted access to the means of ‘making public’ could lead to an even more confusing mass of literature than exists at present:

 Kirby points out that the ‘footprint’ of academic publishing has grown ‘exponentially’ since the 1960s. His point appears to be that even in the current system we are already faced with an unwieldy mass of journals and journal articles. This, as the statistics indicate, already represents an unfathomable amount of published resource. Anecdotally we can probably reflect here on how hard it is to keep up with the articles published in our own specialist areas let alone across entire disciplines and cognate disciplines. The point, it would seem, is that this situation could very well get even worse if we adopt an unlimited open model of publishing. The implicit observation is that academic publishers limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content. Kirby’s suggestion is that with open access we will be opening the floodgates whilst also losing some of these ordering mechanisms. As such we might well end up, Kirby (2012, p. 259) claims, with even more material and with ‘no obvious means to make any sense of it’.

There’s a certain plausibility to this argument though I think it, as well as Dave’s response, ignores the significance of network filtering (as happens through social media) and correspondingly overestimates the significance of bureaucratic filtering (as happens through publishing corporations). Journals are becoming less important to discovery and perhaps less important as cyphers of quality, at least in terms of the reading decisions individuals make (clearly this is untrue in terms of institutional use of prestige as a cypher for quality and associated decisions about the distribution of scarce resources). Nonetheless, it’s unrealistic to imagine that a socially networked academia could, as an unintended emergent effect of sustained online communication, “limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content”. Which is why the mechanisms being deployed within the music industry to filter content and aid discoverability are potentially so relevant:

Against this backdrop of cultural cacophony, music cultures have found ways to organise content so that it might find an audience. The broadcast model, despite the recent changes, remains relatively powerful in music. And so we still have large organisations shaping consumption at the top end of the market through TV shows like The X Factor. Amongst the chaos in music we also have systems that enable people to locate new music that they might like to listen to. Here predictive analytics are increasingly beginning to rule. Music fans are often told what music they are likely to want to listen to by machines. Software applications built in to iTunes, Last.fm and the like are predictive of tastes. These predictive systems provide a means for managing the chaos as the music automatically ‘finds’ its audience. This is an era in which, as Scott Lash (2006) has put it, the data ‘find us’. The practices of tagging music with metadata and the accumulation of personal profiles combine to enable this form of ‘knowing capitalism’ (Thrift, 2005) to operate. If this were to happen in academic research then one of the solutions to the intellectual din of open access might be apps that enable research articles to ‘find’ their desired audiences. This app might well predict what type of thing you might want to read and recommend it to you. An early version of this type of recommendation system, although based just on links with individual articles rather than one’s comprehensive browsing history, is provided by Elsevier’s ScienceDirect platform. It sounds nice and convenient, but as with music we are forced to question the underlying algorithmic infrastructures that will then be so powerful in shaping the formation of knowledge (Beer, 2009Hayles, 2006). These algorithms will shape the knowledge we encounter and will in turn then impact upon our ideas.

I just read an interesting (though slightly depressing!) post from Nick Hopwood giving useful advice to PhDs and ECRs. I’m not quibbling with his advice per se and I genuinely enjoy his blog but I took issue with this paragraph:

I had vague ideas that academics, with a few obvious exceptions, get on in their careers by doing good, solid research, teaching effectively, and making quiet contributions to institutional and disciplinary life. The quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship would ensure that their recognition. If that was ever true (which it may not have been) it certainly isn’t now. You get, and get on in, an academic career by actively (perhaps aggressively at times) peddling your ideas, your effectiveness as a teacher, and your value to the uni or your field. You have to push. This comes from having the vision and courage to apply for grants when you’ll probably get rejected, to aim for top journals, to try out new teaching approaches, and to step up in working groups, push new ideas through committees, take on roles in your disciplinary organisation. But it also comes from capitalising on those achievements when you make them. An academic life is pretty much a constant sales pitch (see below). Here, I mean you’re selling your work to others.

I completely see what he’s getting at. But I’d like to make a (potentially naive) argument against it. His case rests on the suggestion that, in the contemporary academy, people won’t receive recognition through the intrinsic virtue of their scholarship. There’s a certain plausibility about this claim. But does it hold for open scholarship? I suspect not but I don’t wish to suggest that ‘openness’ somehow ameliorates all that is wrong with higher education. However I do think that when the development of ideas becomes, via social media, an open process then Nick’s argument largely ceases to be true. This could be construed cynically: perhaps social media is intrinsically self-promotive? Or more positively: genuine openness in academic life would make it much more likely that people receive recognition in virtue of “the quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship”. Thoughts on this  would be much appreciated, as I’m not entirely sure whether I’m convinced by my own argument. I guess the intuition underlying it is that ‘doing work in the open’ cannot be equated to self-promotion even if, in practice, the former leads to the latter.

Part 2 of this post. I had to stop writing because the battery on my phone was dying. Though the fact that I can write part 1 of the post (on my phone in a coffee shop in Manchester while waiting for a train) and write part 2 of the post (from a desktop computer in Coventry later that evening) and this constitutes my preparation for a talk the following day is a practical example of what I’m driving at with the continuous publishing notion.


  • At the level of the individual, continuous publishing doesn’t in principle represent any additional workload. One of the most frequent questions I’ve encountered when running social media workshop is “how do you find the time?”. Increasingly all my research related blogging and tweeting is part of the research process itself, rather than something external to it. I use blog posts in particular as a notebook within which to record and develop thoughts. I have a large collection of notebooks from the first half of my PhD filled with often illegible notes and an iPad filled with mindmaps. The only difference with how I now use my blog is that the entries are indexed, easier to read and available to the wider world.
  • Two important consequences flow from this. Firstly I take more care about articulating ideas because others can read them and, furthermore, it’s easier to do this because my typing keeps up with my thoughts whereas my handwriting often doesn’t (at least not if I’m trying to ensure their legibility later). Secondly categorising and tagging my posts inculcates reflexivity about the research process. It helps elaborate a sense of research agendas, as well their different sub strands, which is useful in a purely intellectual sense, as well as being helpful for forming practical publishing projects that can flow from them. It also inculcates reflexivity about your work flow: prior to consciously embracing continuous publishing, my experience of research involved a cycle between an (overly) chaotic process of putting together raw materials & threading them together and an (overly) structured process of fitting these into the formal requirements of journals, publishers, the PhD etc. Now it feels much more unified. I understand the different things I do more, the conditions amenable to them and how this all fits into a coherent sector of my life ‘research’ as distinct from other sectors. It helps put research in a box, though not in a way that feels restrictive. It also helps you work from anywhere and fit the fragments together in a unified way at a time that’s convenient for you.
  • I think there’s a general and often quite vague fear about sharing on the internet which I”ve encountered a lot when running workshops. I don’t share it. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive but, in my mind, if you share your work in some venues, why not share it in others? I don’t think the internet is filled with nefarious academic predators waiting to steal your ideas as soon as you let your guard down. I do however think it’s filled with an enormous range of academics, far more diverse than any network you can encounter in face-to-face settings, who are just as eager to find direct and indirect interlocutors as I assume you are. Even if there are risks I think they’re manifestly outweighed by the benefits which accrue from open research. I passionately believe sharing can and should be a default option. It’s an impulse implicit in the act of publishing and, in so far as we are hesitant about it, I’d suggest that’s a consequence of social structures relating to academic careers, auditing and scholarly publishing perverting the practice of intellectual craftsmanship: making cultural products and sharing them.
  • In technical terms I think all you need to do continuous publishing is a blog and a twitter account. Link the two together and you posses an incredibly potent publishing platform which is free and entirely within your own control. Use twitter to follow people whose work you find interesting and who, perhaps, will find your work interesting. Once you post twitter updates for your new blog posts and discuss them with others, an audience will quickly begin to develop.
  • In doing so I think you maximise your online footprint and impact flows quite naturally from this. People know what work you’re doing, will often refer others to you, it helps publicise your books & papers and you become known for working in your area. It also helps bridge the gap with the world outside the academy. The greater your social media footprint, the easier it is for journalists (and anyone else for that matter) to find your work and to make contact with you. In turn the greater your social media footprint is, the easier it is for those who encounter the ensuing media coverage to find you online by searching for your name and/or your research topic. It’s an incredibly potent form of disintermediation which, I suspect, has yet to really effect the academy in the work it is likely to with time.

Some initial thoughts for a talk i’m doing tomorrow:

– what goes into producing a chapter or a paper? Lots of ideas, conversations, extracts from texts, chunks of writing etc. some of these have a social existence, in so far as they emerge out of formal or informal academic conversations, however most are private and few, if any, are meaningfully public?

– why is this status as public largely restricted to such ‘formal’ outputs? Is it some intrinsic characteristic of the activities which go into producing a paper or a chapter? Inevitably some significant cross-disciplinary variation here which I don’t feel qualified to make a conclusive statement about because it is an empirical question. However
I would contend that at least SOME of this largely private production can be ascribed to the restrictions of the communications infrastructure traditionally available to academics with these restrictions ossifying over time into seemingly ‘obvious’ norms of academic practice.

– these norms tend to restrict dialogue to the post-publication stage which, given the opportunity costs involved in engaging seriously with a paper, inevitably restricts the dialogues that emerge

– so why not try and seek dialogue at the pre publication stage? This would lead to a much broader array of dialogues because of the much lower opportunity costs attached to engaging with, say, a blog post rather than a paper

In the rest of the talk I will discuss:

– technical infrastructure required to do it
– benefits and costs to individuals
– its significance for impact
– my own experiences of trying this