Using social media for non-traditional forms of scholarship

During the last year I was a frequent guest speaker at different University-wide lecture series to talk about my research findings but also my personal use of social media applications as a scholar. I reported about the diverse social media applications I have tested (and abandoned) in the classroom, but also provided insights into how academics can and are currently using social media applications to communicate their work and tap into relevant networks. As a result of this increased visibility, I was also asked my many research centers at the Maxwell School to help out as an in-house consultant to get them started on their social media activities. Many of them have started with baby steps and most of them are still evaluating the usefulness of social media for their work. I can’t make the business case for each academic here, but I decided to compile my insights here in case other scholars are thinking about applying social media applications in their work as well.

1. Think about the incentives and motivation you have as an academic.

Most of us are trying to get tenure by publishing in academic outlets. Some of us might also want to gain (national and international) recognition as experts, which might in turn lead to increased opportunities on the job market or at our home institutions. The research outputs have to adhere to the standards of a discipline and academic field to advance the existing knowledge.

We might also consider the possibility of increasing our knowledge expert status to gain broader influence by spreading the insights and knowledge we have gained of our (publicly) funded research activities. This can happen of course through citations of our academic publications, but they are most of the time not read by anyone outside of our field, or – worst case – hidden in the library sheltered from access to anyone outside of academia. We might therefore want to think about ways on how to translate our academic findings into short pieces that are accessible to practitioners or the broader public, so that we can start or even be part of ongoing dialogue or can react to upcoming events.

Lastly, given all of these activities we want to avoid any unintended consequences, such as overexerting influence on our subjects by avoiding forceful recommendations. Instead, we might want to be part of the network of researchers, practitioners and the public to be part of the conversation.

2. Define your audience.

In order to understand how to communicate, we need to make an assessment of who our audience is. In a recent research meeting we discussed that the audience is much broader than just our direct peers in our sub-disciplines. Instead, we need to understand who the academic gatekeepers and important journal editors are. Moreover, we might want to understand who the journalists are that are writing about topics that are related to our research. Who are policy makers and practitioners that might want to read (an executive summary of) our findings? And who are important funders and donors that need to know about us and might invite us to participate in RFPs.

3. Selecting the right tools.

Many of these activities need to be accomplished through direct face-to-face interactions at conferences, job talks, speaking engagements, etc. Other ways of knowledge sharing are traditional channels, such as hard (or electronic) copies, or policy briefs that are picked up by the media.

Moreover, we also share knowledge by teaching or participating in conversations on listservers or other platforms.

Social media can help with both processes: I have started to use this WordPress blog back in 2006, when it became clear that I won’t have access to a stable URL for a while. Many of us are moving from one position to another and we need to set up our digital selves over and over again. I decided to link my institutional faculty page to this blog for frequent updates.

Twitter allows you to quickly disseminate research findings by linking to papers, Op-Eds, blog posts, or your homepage. It also helps to connect to other researchers or practitioners who are interested in my research topic. I was lucky enough to follow public conversations on Twitter around the #gov20 hashtag and used insights out of these conversations in the classroom. It also helped me to understand what the network of practitioners I should pay attention to looks like. Moreover, I like to use Twitter as part of my own reflection process and repost my blog posts and interesting articles in my news feed.

Facebook is great for joining academic groups and staying in touch with other academics. Otherwise, I mostly use it to connect to my peers and friends – very infrequently to “brag” about my publications. AND: never to connect to my current or former students. I do invite them to connect to me on LinkedIn and posted a social media policy on my faculty page.

4. Social media strategy

So what would I suggest as your social media strategy? First of all, I feel it’s important to say that you don’t have to be part of the bandwagon if you don’t believe in social media or it is simply not your form of knowledge sharing. Everyone of us usually has a formal faculty page. Make the best out if it and frequently update your CV and publication list.

I felt that an institutional site is limiting – either access is limited to a faculty assistant or it doesn’t allow for infrequent and informal updates such as a blog does. Therefore, I decided to use WordPress. It has very clean and professional looking templates (very different than Blogger from Google, for example). I connected my WordPress blog directly to Facebook. The application “Networked Blogs” automatically posts blog posts to my Facebook feed. I also use the blog link on my Twitter profile as a more accurate description of myself and publish those articles that might contribute to the #gov20 community on Twitter.

A blog is a great way to present short snippets of your ongoing research – and not necessarily the final output, that usually won’t be published until 2-3 years later (given the long review and publication cycles of academic journals). Blogs therefore help to abandon the time and distance constraints that we have based on the limitations of journal publications or yearly conference schedules.

A communication professional recently gave me the tip to use the “Link – Quote – Comment” rule: Blog posts of academics don’t need to be as lengthy as the one you are currently reading. Instead, it is absolutely acceptable to link to an ongoing event, quote how your own research might contribute to it and comment on how you might solve it or how your research might confirm it.

A blog is also a great tool to reduce search costs for journalists who are looking for an expert in a specific academic disciplines and might lead to press coverage or Op-Eds. The comment function allows for ongoing dialogue – although I can promise you that most people read and absorb online content but hardly ever make the effort to comment.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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