Confessions of an academic on Twitter

Image via wersm.com

From requests by conference organisers to tweet our presentations to university departments asking us to guest blog, it has become increasingly obvious to my colleagues and me that using social media within academia is inescapable.

I use various social media applications but Twitter is the one that has most benefited my research career. Here are some reflections of my first year as an academic on Twitter.

The benefits of being a researcher on Twitter

Building your profile: Being an active user of Twitter has resulted in people coming across me and my work who may not otherwise have done so. For example, a researcher from an Ivy League American university first saw my work on Twitter and then contacted me to discuss future collaboration. Had I not been on Twitter our paths may never have crossed as she was not currently doing work directly related to my topic (but would like to). [But beware of the Kardashian index!]

Locate 'hidden' people/research/communities: Within the first few days of using Twitter a colleague of mine located two papers that she had not yet come across. Twitter is a great resource to allow the research to come to you! Twitter is also great for accessing minority groups who don't yet have a prominent voice in mainstream media. For example, Australian Aboriginal people use Twitter to share their perspectives on issues that either aren't covered by mainstream media or that are covered but with a skewed view (normally in favour of white privileged men).

Aids participant recruitment: You can use Twitter to advertise your study to potential participants. While this method is biased towards educated, middle-class people you can also access minority groups within this demographic that you may not otherwise have (see above point).

Engage with the community you conduct research with: I am currently conducting research on women's experiences of endometriosis. I like to be connected to the community of women who have this condition and to health professionals who provide care to these women to inform my research and to gain ideas about research translation. One of the ways I do this is with Twitter. I tweet about research to them and they tweet about their experiences to me which tends to plant seeds in my mind that often blossom into something that enhances my work. 

Example of community engagement: Some funding bodies ask for evidence of your engagement with the community to ensure transparency and applicability in your research. Twitter is a great platform to do this from (see above point).

Making the most of Twitter

Hashtags: Check out the trending hashtags on your homepage; using these are a great way to increase your exposure to the Twitter community. It might be hard to relate one back to your research interests but a tenuous link is fine. It's also worth looking for the hashtags that are relevant to your work. For example, 'endometriosis' is associated with the following tags: #endometriosis, #pelvicpain, #endo, #endostrong, #endoresearch, etc. Using these is a great way for me to connect with the endo community. If there is no relevant hashtag, make one up! 

Conferences/presentations: Most conferences will have a hashtag which is usually outlined in your welcome materials. If you tweet anything about the conference or while at the conference use this hashtag so that attendees (and others who couldn't make it) can find you. This is a great way to network. It's also worth including your Twitter handle (e.g. '@Researcher_Kate') on the first and last slide of your presentation so that the audience can connect with you and tweet your work. Taking these actions means you no longer present to a conference audience only - you present to the whole of Twitter! 

Integrating Twitter into your work: People constantly ask me how I can be so active on Twitter but not let it take away from work. The answer to this is that I use Twitter as part of my work. Whenever I read a new journal article I press the little tweet icon (most journals have this feature) to tweet the title and abstract. It takes <10 seconds to do and gets important research to the public/academics/clinicians etc. Most media outlets also have this feature:

Press the Twitter icon (circled in red) to tweet an article.
If I'm reading a book for my thesis and come across an interesting sentence that reads well out of context I will often tweet it. I'll also add the author's handle as this is (yet another) great way to network. I find this strategy particularly useful for interdisciplinary work as it can be hard to meet professionals outside of your current field. 

Lessons learned

Trolls: When tweeting about certain things (like pretty much anything to do with women) it's not a question of if you get trolled but when. There is no 'right' way to deal with trolls.* I prefer to ignore and block them but a friend of mine likes to screenshot their comments and names and tweet it. 

Academic freedom of expression: I am fortunate enough to be at an institution that supports academic freedom of expression including on social media. You may wish to check with your administration about what the policy is at your institution. I really like the following quote from Katie Dunn at Daily Genius:

Even if your Twitter account is a professional one, you're still a multi-faceted individual with a variety of interests; it is OK to share something that is a little off the beaten path every now and again.

The numbers game: According to this website, the average user has 208 followers. Whether you have more or less than this is probably not important, depending on your aim for having a Twitter account. For example, my aim was to connect with other professionals in my field and the community I do research with. Most of my followers fall into one of these categories and I have had a lot of positive things come from using Twitter. The fact that I have 300+ followers doesn't mean much for me and my work. I prefer quality over quantity.

I hope you found this useful. For further reading on using Twitter in academia, I recommend checking out the following links:

Happy tweeting,

Kate xx

*If your personal safety and/or well-being is being threatened I suggest you seek support from a trusted colleague or friend, and I hope that you are OK.