Friday, August 5, 2011

Social media and research

Every six years in New Zealand, academics go through a process of collecting evidence about their research and submitting it to the Ministry of Education. They are given a score according to various criteria and their institution is funded according to the score - obviously the higher the score, the more funding the university gets. This process is called PBRF - there are similar processes all around the world.

As an academic, I have to try and score as many brownie points as possible based on my research publications, my contribution to the research environment and peer other words, what others think of my research. This process is very much wrapped around highly regarded research journals...and all the other stuff that comes with academia like... if you've been invited to speak at a conference...had your research cited in another journal article...been asked to give an expert consultation...etc.

This process does leave me asking...what is "quality" research? Actually, to go back one step, what is research? And, what is publication?

This has taken me to ask where social media sits in this process. Can I count a blog post as a "publication"? Is evidence of peer esteem the number of re-tweets I get on Twitter, or the number of "likes" I have on Facebook. Can I use the number of hits and subscribers I get to this blog as evidence of my contribution to the research environment?

Let me tell you a story which illustrates what I am trying to get my head around.

A couple of weeks ago I put a PowerPoint presentation together about the use of social media and the effects it has on the digital identity of babies and young children. I had to do some reading around the topic, analyze the results of research and come up with a conclusion - in other words, this was a research activity. I "published" the presentation on Slideshare.

In two weeks it has had nearly 4,500 hits, been "favourited" 9 times, has been embedded elsewhere 10 times, and been downloaded 70 times. It was so popular it was featured on the front of the Slideshare website for a week. So in terms of research and how it is esteemed, this fits the bill.

But the snag is...Slideshare is not a "reputable" research journal or forum and isn't formally peer-reviewed by "credible" research academics. There will be many that say it does not belong in a PBRF portfolio.

I don't think the PBRF process has been tested yet by social media. And I am not sure how brave I am and whether I want to be a test case, especially if it means I get a lower score as an outcome.

I'd love to hear from anyone who works in academia or is a researcher and faced with a similar dilemma, especially if you work in other countries with similar processes to PBRF. Is now the time to challenge the accepted perception of what research is, or are those of us who use web 2.0 research methodologies a little ahead of our time?


John Coxon said...

Your post opens up an even bigger picture. Once the acquisition of knowledge was the sole domain of academia. Those lesser soles relied almost entirely upon the annointed to enlighten them. Today every (wo)man and their dog has access to great amounts of information - some of it reliable, some of it not. This suggests it is not our ability to access knowledge, rather it is our ability to sort and identify which information is relevant.

While I doubt the number of 'likes' on social media will ever qualify as a recommendation - it does open up the question of who are the future conduits of knowledge and who are merely gatekeepers to the past?

While once every six years you may have to prostrate yourself in front of the ivory halls, its what you use the knowledge in between that is more important.

While the Dean's may not view common media as being of academic value; those that subscribe to your posts and those that you share your knowledge with will be eternally grateful, as you demonstrate that knowledge is the domain of all rather than the domain of a select few.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I'm in the same position. I have a successful blog but this doesn't count in PBRF. I know that Dr Lorimer Moseley is considering using his blog/website as a research output with the same motive as I have - to connect with clinicians who will challenge, discuss and hopefully use the research that's presented there. (His blog is

The thing is, we connect with and thus influence far more people through social media than through the pages of a journal. What we say on social media is in the public arena and we can be held accountable for what we write by anyone. It's painfully obvious if we make an error, so we need to be transparent and clear about how we arrive at our opinions.

I hope to include my blog as a research output. I have no idea how it will be viewed, but it's something I'm committed to. There are increasing numbers of us doing a good deal of epublishing, so ultimately I believe it will be included in some form.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi John, thank you so much for your very kind comments - I really appreciate them.

I am really looking forward to watching the trends in research over the next 10 years or so, to see if and how we view changes in light of social media and online information dissemination. I think one of the key drivers will be open access journals. If they become main stream, then we may see a change to how we view the "credibility" of research.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi @Healthskills

I am really pleased to hear from you - it's great to hear from someone facing the same dilemma. I think if there's enough of us using our blogs etc as evidence for PBRF then the PBRF committees will have to take notice of us. Thanks for sharing what you're going to do for PBRF - it has strengthened my resolve to do the same.