Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Digital Academic: Tools & Tips for Research Impact & ECR Employability

On Monday I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk as part of a half day event run by and Piirus, hosted at The University of Warwick. The event was aimed at early career researchers and was called ‘The Digital Academic: Tools & Tips for Research Impact & ECR Employability. I was speaking alongside two experienced bloggers and experts in helping ECRs with Dr Nadine Muller from Liverpool John Moores University and host of The New Academic Blog. The final speaker was Dr Inger Mewburn who is Director of Research Training at the Australian National University and host of the popular Thesis Whisperer blog.
Dr Nadine Muller
We started the morning with an excellent talk by Nadine who proposed the idea that blogs and social media are a superb way to share publications and ideas. As with the overall theme of the day Nadine was positive in the use of social media but considerate as to the issues that can emerge from blogging. Nadine’s talk helped explain how blogging can help shape you as an academic and help form and share ideas. The model being that you build a social media strategy into your career, but also not to fear it or put pressure on yourself. Nadine was able to look at statistics for her blog and see how many visits it received and where from globally. Along with user comments this is a great way of discovering the impact of a blog, which for some can feel unrewarding at times. The message is keep on blogging but not to pressure yourself to unnecessarily. Nadine also talked about perseverance and that it had taken her a concerted effort to learn the skills how to build her site, that by trial and effort she was able to create her own platform. 
After speaking to Nadine before and throughout the event I was impressed by her passion for learning and sharing knowledge. Nadine’s view appeared to be very much along the lines that we have great power with technology for change if we wield it correctly and for good. Nadine shared a common thread with myself and Inger that it is OK to get things wrong and that failure is just part of the process, we just need to be less afraid of it. Academia needs more people like this.

I gave my talk where I proposed 23 Research Hacks to help ECRs build an online profile, collaborate as well as discover new ideas and knowledge. As an information specialist I was keen to explain that a strategy is needed to achieve this as not to fall into the trap of bad time management when using social media and other technologies. I discussed the potential of Altmetrics and how it can aid scholarly communication and measurement much better than the past. The slides are here:

I received a few interesting questions around the issues of Altmetrics and that despite counting things they may not tell us that someone is a good academic, just that they produce a lot of stuff. The truth being that no system will ever properly weed out the charlatans but by being more open about what we do and seeing where it impacts; we have a better chance of pushing good quality knowledge forward. Also one common misconception of Altmetrics is that they are an alternative to journal citations, whereas they not only supplement them but also measure content we’d previously ignored such as datasets and reports.

I was asked by one worried academic how universities could avoid using such metrics to make decisions that as a result focus on putting extra pressure on researchers. In response, Altmetrics and other kinds of metrics do allow us to get a better picture of where research is being saved, read, shared and discussed. This is no bad thing, I think we need to know this. When fundholders, libraries and publishers are trying to their best to get more value from their resources, these tools can help. Sadly however there will always be those in institutions who will use it as a way to pressure researchers, whether this happens with Altmetrics only time will tell. As I explained to the delegate over coffee, MOOCs are a wonderful thing and an altruistic way to share knowledge to those who cannot afford traditional university places. However, there are those who see it wholly as a way to generate more income for the institution. We’d be foolish to think that either can exist in isolation right now.

Finally we were treated to an engaging talk by Dr Inger Mewburn who talked about the power of blogging. Inger gave the captive audience a wealth of knowledge that has helped her produce one of the best academic blogs on the Web today. There were confessions of starting and ending previous blogs and not always getting it right. Inger’s advice was plain and simple; be short, be regular, be useful. There was a question about what researchers could feel confident about blogging and whether there were issues about getting into trouble. As part of her answer, Inger suggested delegates got a copy of the book: 'Blogging and tweeting without being sued'.

Dr Inger Mewburn

Inger explained that blogging was an informal way to get research and ideas across the Web and did not require the formal referencing system that is part and parcel with journal writing. This inspirational and lively talk gave us the best line of the event with Inger’s notion that Facebook was for people she had gone to school with, Twitter was for people she had wished she’d gone to school with. The talk was filled with useful advice that encouraged delegates to find a niche and discover blogs they could guest write for.

There was an engaging Q&A panel discussion afterwards with one question standing out about how you deal with trolls and negative comments. It is a tough issue and one that can cause much distress for some academics who put their head above the parapet, especially those with mental health issues and lacking in confidence. There is no simple answer as there will always be trolls and horrible people on the Web looking for a fight. Advice was given as to how best deal with negative comments, which first of all should never be taken personally, at least where possible. Always remember that the person making the personal attack is showing themselves up on a very public Web. These types of communications can be blocked and reported. Whilst there are situations where a negative comment might be the result of mis-understanding what you have said. It might be that the comment could be correct and actually aid yourself and your research if there is a hole in your logic. As long as a comment is critical, insightful and helpful it is fine, when they get personal, pointless and pinnikity they are not. Whatever happens, it is down to you as to whether you respond to a comment or review, when in doubt check with a colleague whether your response is measured. Just remember that once you do respond to a comment, there is often very little you can do to go back on it. Negative comments on the Web are just part and parcel of it, the Web reflects real life, and that for the very most part conversations will be positive and harmless. You are under no pressure to respond to such comments, provided you can justify what you say in the first place.

There are two blog pieces about the event written by Tee Ola AKA The Stylish Academi

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