Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Social Media for Researchers - A Sheffield Universities Social Media Symposium

I attended the first joint University of Sheffield and Hallam University social media symposium for researchers yesterday at Hallam. I was there to deliver a presentation alongside Information Resources colleague and writer for this blog Claire Beecroft on Altmetrics in the Academy.
The event was run jointly by Hallam’s SHaRD Programme and Think Ahead Sheffield to help early-career researchers build a good career through workshops, mentoring and work-experiences.

The day was jam-packed with six presentations from colleagues at both institutions, one from The University of Derby and one from SciConnect. Given that social media has been the buzz term on the Web for the last couple of years the implications, potentials and threats to academia are far and wide and were all covered throughout the course of the day.

Whilst despite regarding myself to be fairly tech-savvy with a good grasp of the Web I found the sessions all to be really useful. In fact it was the first time in a long time that I had attended a full day’s event of any kind to see such an engaging and knowledgeable set of speakers. Also the dreaded fear of speaking last, in that some of your audience have dipped out early, fallen asleep, lost the will to live or in most cases heard it all before was not to be. The previous presentations drilled down into different areas of the social web from big data to blogging all with considerable expertise and thought.

The day started with an entertaining and balanced look at why researchers should engage with social media by Tristram Hooley, who is Professor of Career Education at the University of Derby. Tristram talked about the research cycle of identifying, creating, reviewing and disseminating knowledge and how Social Media could aid this thanks to the ease and opportunities of collaboration it brings. Tristam spoke about the theories behind networks and Dunbar’s Number that we are only capable of maintaining so many stable social relationships and how this could be applied to social media and the online relationships we build on top of real-life ones. Tristam went on to give important tips on how you build networks, who is worth knowing and that in essence you do not need to know everyone.

Next up was Sue Beckingham who is an Educational Developer and Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam. Sue is one of the many people who I originally found on the Web through the many useful Tweets Sue was posting in addition to collections she curates on the excellent Scoop.It! tool about learning and social media. As anyone will know by using social media it is a great icebreaker and that you often have conversations or at least get an idea of what someone’s interests are before you meet them, Sue is one of those connections for me. I’d seen Sue speak at the joint Sheffield Google Apps for Education conference earlier this when I’d also delivered a presentation. Sue delivered a very measured, knowledgeable talk on why researchers should engage with social media. Sue touched onto an idea that I have long propagated, that she referred to as ‘positive interconnectedness’ meaning that you look to maximise your outputs by connecting your various web presences together by linking, embedding and sharing. It is something that I would refer to as a ‘Web 2.0 state of mind’ that you look for opportunities to minimise your workload but maximise your presence, reach and consistency. I very much liked Sue’s take on the idea of lurkers should not be referred to as that but listeners, giving it a much more positive feel in the educational setting at least. Sue’s session also touched on that growing problem, certainly something that grows bigger the more you use social media; that being the blurring between personal and professional boundaries online. It’s a point that anyone who has used social media in a personal and professional capacity will have come across. The biggest challenges being what do you say, how do you say it and where do you post and to whom. The hard and fast rule is not to say anything that you would not be prepared to say on the street in public, or at least to your grandmother. LinkedIn received huge praise from Sue as a powerful search engine and knowledge base, and the ability to use groups to share and find useful information with similar people.

Next up was Dr Farida Vis who works opposite me as a researcher on the other side of the quadrant at Regent Court at the iSchool amongst various herv other roles. Farida talked extensively about the work she had done looking at big data and analsying content coming from the social web. With involvement in a myriad of projects and programmes Farida explained the complexities, technical and ethical relating to capturing user-generated content for research. Farida talked about the possibilities for researchers using this data but explained the pitfalls from earlier interventions which were initially heralded but later proved to be flawed. One example being that of Google Flu Trends, which at the time looked like a better predictor of possible Flu epidemics than the data captured by the Centre of Disease Control in the United States. Farida told the delegates about the data collected by Google based on searches for ‘flu’ that in turn became biased as the flu story was reported in the media, causing more non-infected users to search for flu and whether outbreaks were happening in their locality. Farida gave various definitions of what big data meant with one that stuck out for me with regards to social media that it is: “Qualitative data on a quantitative scale” originally promoted by Francesco D’Orazio. The presentation gave valid arguments as to the benefits and pitfalls of big data from validation to privacy issues and whether having more data actually means better answers. Farida talked about the work she had done in the field of journalism and the problems they face in trying to verify accurate and quality information with the idea that information is treated as false until verified and gave a link to the useful Verification Handbook.

After a superb lunch, Dr Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield’s Psychology and Cognitive Science department talked about his experience of blogging and managing social media profiles. As someone who runs six blogs, Tom talked about the reasons behind blogging and how it does not have to be a public thing, in that Tom has one blog to capture his own thoughts and reflections from his work and teaching. Tom spoke of the issue of creating large social networks for the sake of it, that if you have a small field of peers in real life, that this can be reflected on social media and they are only group you need to interact with. He also touched on the issue of popularity and that social media is full of big celebrities who have massive followings and that they can be allowed to dilute your experiences of social media if you let them. I liked Tom’s unique approach of using the session more like a flipped classroom, in that after a few sessions had already been delivered and given everyone in the room had some knowledge of social media he treated it more as a surgery to solve individual’s questions about blogging and managing online presences. Tom talked about Twitter being like having one foot in the conference bar which went down well with the attendees.
Tom’s presentation can be viewed here

The penultimate presentation came from Dr Claire Ainsworth who is the Principal Trainer for SciConnect. Again this was another very engaging and educational session on the benefits of blogging, especially when trying to reach wider audiences and make an impact, even more so when talking about what can be niche topics. Claire talked about her own husband’s research website and videos that had reached hundreds of thousands of visitors and viewers. Whilst the use of traditional media, such as television news should not be played down in the age of mass communication being on the Web.

Finally was mine and Claire’s presentation, which is embedded below and focused again on the pros and cons of using social media in research and academia. In that once you take the plunge into social media there are certain rules and etiquettes to adhere to. The main focus of the presentation was on altmetrics, what they were, the arguments behind them and whether they had the potential like MOOCs and open access to shake up academia. We explained the idea that altmetrics is not just using social media to communicate and share research outputs but also the ability to measure them in new and meaningful ways that go beyond the download and share button. For example this may mean metrics such as where was the paper read globally and how long did someone have a research paper open for on their computer. As with any aspect of social media the debate will continue and it is unlikely that we will see at any time soon a mass move by academics to use these platforms for their research outputs and connections. Nevertheless there is a growing band of academics wanting to know more about the benefits - of which there are many - and pitfalls which sometimes you only need one to really fail. A session like this one can only go some way to educating academics to such opportunities and threats.

I have to praise the organisers of the event, especially with it being such an excellent collaborative affair. The standard of talks were of very high quality, and were very balanced. All too often with technologies you get biased reporting - meaning the presenter talks just about the positives of something, almost like a sales pitch, whilst this symposium had the right balance of encouragement alongside that of care and attention. Also with a topic like this, or such innovations you invariably find yourself speaking to the same, friendly, supportive faces on campus, for me and Claire this was not the case - they were friendly, new faces. It was great to see so many researchers and professionals attend and hopefully take away a few new ideas and practices.

Twitter accounts of all the speakers:

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