In our increasingly online-dominated world, science communication is becoming an ever greater priority for academics, with the subject of self-promotion earning itself a place in workshops, conference debates and within job specifications as universities clock on to the benefits of having their very own, in-built, free public relations team.
But research shows that highlighting work on social media brings clear benefits for individuals, too, making the number of excuses left for Twitter refuseniks increasingly limited. So what should scholars know about promoting their research online?
Know where (and why) to begin
Most universities provide their own guidance on social media best practice to interested staff members, which can offer a good starting point. The first tip for academics from Rowena Harding, research communication officer at the University of Manchester, is to “know why you’re promoting your research online and to what audiences”.
“Your alumni may be on Facebook, your research peers on Twitter, your undergrads on Instagram, policymakers on podcasts…so know where’s best to spend your time,” she added.
According to Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, there are obvious benefits to public engagement for scholars, but something too often overlooked is the direct intellectual return that online promotion can bring. “Blog posts and tweets can spark new ideas,” he said, citing examples of unexpected collaborations formed as a result of serendipitous interactions on Twitter.
“I think many academics are still hesitant to use social media because they do not see there being a payoff…[but] it is important for scholars to [do] as much as they are comfortable [with] because it is increasingly the main way in which researchers can have an immediate public impact,” he added.
Becoming your own cheerleader is serious business – take it from someone who used to work in public relations for a living. Carolina Are, now a PhD student in criminology at City, University of London, said that for every piece of research she writes, “I look for #journorequests on Twitter, email the journalists…write articles…either for a blog or for a publication [and] share it on social media”.
Ms Are also extols the value of attending events to make connections face to face, “so that then my research gets shared”.
But if that sounds like an exhausting to-do list, Twitter is a revolutionary tool in minimum-hassle self-promotion. A paper published on PeerJ by scientists at the University of Alberta last year found evidence that Twitter has the greatest influence of all popular social media platforms in terms of getting research seen.
Clayton Lamb, a PhD candidate at Alberta and lead author of the study, suggested that there are shortcuts to be found here, too. “I’m a big believer in infographics,” he said. “They seem to help papers spread further and convey information very efficiently.” His PeerJ paper also found that linking to a research paper within a blog post was most likely to increase its citation count.
Adrian Kavanagh, a geography lecturer at Maynooth University, manages two research-based blogs – one for election studies in the Republic of Ireland and one for his extensive analyses of the politics and voting patterns of the Eurovision Song Contest. “Any time I create a new post, I tweet a line or two explaining it, accompanied by a link,” he said. “These means are good for drawing the general public’s attention to my research. To date I’ve had 1.1 million [website] views.”
An added benefit of keeping on top of his blogs for Dr Kavanagh is increased motivation for the rest of his work. “The challenge of trawling for ways to update different site pages is part of the fun and does give me a bit of a nerdy buzz,” he said.
For Ian Hamilton, senior lecturer in mental health at the University of York, podcasting is an enjoyable and effective method of promoting his work and engaging in subjects related to his field “in a broader way”. But he acknowledged that lack of confidence was a barrier for many.
“I’ve encountered this frequently with colleagues who do some amazing work that would be great to get out to a wider audience,” he said. “That’s why I think collaborating works well; if you partner with someone who has experience, that can help give you confidence as well as [helping you to learn] what to avoid and what makes for a more engaging approach.”
It’s never too late
Mr Lamb’s research suggests to him that “there are many baby boomers and many older, very influential academics on Twitter” in particular, and that there is a generational divide in social media use only in the fact that “the younger generation seems to understand that the competition for attention is high”.
As a self-confessed old-timer, Dr Kavanagh said: “I don’t think it’s ever too late to use social media to promote academic work. It does require some patience and some luck, however, as well as an ability to provide something that isn’t offered by others.”