August 16, 2016, by Michael Jennings

Social media, what is it good for (when used as part of your work)?

Dr Ansgar Koene, Senior Research Fellow in the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute, discusses a study into use of social media in academia.

The POET (Public Outreach Engagement Tool) project by the CaSMa and CREATe groups at Horizon Digital Economy Research is developing a tool that can be used by researchers to visualise their social media outreach. We aim to create a tool that will allow a quantification of public dialogue on social media, to establishing the ‘impact’ of social media use in the context of public engagement by university researchers, especially in regards to the Impact and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agendas. We previously conducted one round of interviews with science researchers, and have held a workshop to think about what the output of this tool could look like. Our project is still at the stage where we are collecting information about how social media is used by academics as part of their working day – to what extent it is used, the feelings associated with using it, whether their motivations for using it are work related, and whether this tool would be useful for any current public engagement work.

Our work on the POET project appears timely, considering the large reaction that a PhD student’s critique of social media use in academia received last Friday. This article resulted in hundreds of academic Tweeters using the satirical hashtag #seriousacademic to challenge the idea that you cannot be both a “serious academic” and voluntarily enjoy using social media to discuss your own research. The backlash of tweets to the article demonstrated the strong community of successful academics who use Twitter as part of their working day, as a means of developing networks and collaboration, disseminating information, and promoting research to other academics, and the wider publics. An excellent response posted on The Guardian further described just how justifiable it is to include the use of social media in any student’s training who wishes to become a “serious academic”.

But it is short sighted to close ranks on the thoughts expressed by the anonymous PhD student, who raised points that several of our participants from last year’s STEM based interviews also noted. The time pressures on researchers to publish, fund, and combat the looming threat of joblessness often leads to highly focused work productivity in areas that are professionally recognised – therefore, many researchers (particularly those in non-permanent posts) may find the demand of updating a social media account too much on top of research and publications, as well as conferences and other public outreach events already occurring. Indeed, many of the participants last year felt a pressure if they did tweet, to keep it strictly professional in order to maintain the appearance of professionalism when using social media. However, it was noted by other participants that evidence of successful social media engagement as part of your discipline can give you the edge when applying for future jobs. The lack of consistency between disciplines, and even between hiring panels presents a difficult landscape to navigate for academic researchers searching to strategically invest time in order to stay employable.

This is a relatively crude summary of just some of the views that were described in our interviews, and we are aiming understand in much greater detail how social media fits into the work life of academics. Our project last year focused on STEM researchers, and this summer we are aiming to broaden our participants to the areas of arts, humanities and social sciences (and any discipline in between). We hope to gain further insight about the differences between attitudes of social media use across disciplines, to ensure that any tool we create can be used by all researchers who are interested in using it.

Can you help?

We are still recruiting participants to be interviewed about their social media activity. These interviews usually take no longer than 30 minutes, and involve an informal discussion about your social media use. If you use, or have used social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or blogging that is in any way connected to your academic work life, we would love to have the opportunity to talk to you. Please email with you availability up until Friday 26 August, and we will be in touch. For any more general questions about the POET project, feel free to email

Posted in Horizon digital research