Status update: a little uncomfortable

Scholar details diffidence in research development staff's use of social media. Elizabeth Gibney writes

September 6, 2012

Research development staff are often less comfortable using social media tools than the researchers they support.

That is the view of Paul Spencer, researcher development manager at the University of the West of England, who this week spoke about the issue at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2012 in Manchester.

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the event, he said that there was often a lack of understanding about what researchers were trying to do with social media.

"At the very basic level, researchers aren't doing anything very different - finding new knowledge and trying to engage people with that."

Social media tools extend and accelerate this process, he added.

Dr Spencer said that research development staff needed to be able to address academics' basic concerns about using social media, rather than having technical knowledge of the tools themselves.

For example, one of research users' main concerns about social media is how to maintain separate professional and private identities, he said.

"Do I create a separate professional identity or do I mix the two? The answer for most people is to use different tools to achieve different aims. I tend to use Facebook for family and friends, Twitter is something of a mix of professional and personal, and things [such as presentation software] Prezi and blogs are entirely professional."

Other worries when using social media include data management, control of intellectual property, the potential for information overload and the opportunity for social media to become time-consuming and to interrupt other work, he said.

In order to be able to support researchers and share their own experiences more effectively, researcher developers needed help developing their social media skills, Dr Spencer argued.

"We don't have a choice about whether we do social media anymore, only about how well we do it," he said.

A handbook of social media for researchers and supervisors, also launched at the conference, identifies similar concerns to those raised by Dr Spencer, based on surveys carried out in 2011-12.

Prepared for Vitae by Shailey Minocha and Marian Petre, researchers at The Open University's Centre for Research in Computing, the handbook finds that postgraduate and early-career researchers are most likely to take up technologies based on peers' recommendations.

Researchers often adapt the tools they use to suit different supervisors' preferences, while supervisors sometimes block the adoption of new technologies, it adds.

Overall, not everyone is equally comfortable using social media, Dr Spencer said. He cited research carried out by Jisc, the higher education technology body, which found that among researchers and development staff, different age groups have different attitudes to social media tools.

"Between 20 to 30 years old and 50-plus, there is quite a lot of confidence in using these tools, but there's a significant dip in the middle," he said.

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