Embracing alternatives: The use of social media and open knowledge

Social media is increasingly being utilised as a platform to share knowledge, build profiles and even learn skills, for example LinkedIn and YouTube. According to Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) social media is now an integral way to connect with peers and share relevant information to specialist communities of practice. The concept of social media being used to build communities of practice within higher education was highlighted in a blog post by Carly P. She describe how Facebook has been embraced by students within her faculty for this reason. Initially set up by staff as a means for “prospective students to make contact with their peers” but it soon developed into a thriving online community for students to share information about their course. Uses ranged from sharing academic resources, posting links to course materials, uploading copies of lecture notes, to asking for help on particular aspects of the course and practical questions. Carly claims that using this particular platform has been a popular way for students to connect and share ideas in comparison to university based systems: “I believe these Facebook groups are successful exactly because they aren't perceived as being ‘official’. It’s certainly true that the Facebook platform is much more conducive to creating discussion groups than the University’s VLE platform, Blackboard, whose forums have always failed to sustain any significant discussion”. This has been attributed to the unofficial, relaxed nature of the medium allowing people to freely share ideas. It wasn't until an instance arose where a student made a sarcastic comment on a post from a member of staff that made some members of faculty feel they had to take action towards the student. But I agree with Carly when she states that it is not the place of staff to police students through these channels: “In order to preserve an open environment I think that we as staff members have to stop thinking of ourselves as the owners of these online communities and try to engage with them as participants instead”. Furthermore, some negative comments expressed through these channels may be seen to be more useful than the positive comments shared. This is because the relaxed nature of social media allows many to feel comfortable enough to voice their true thoughts. Thus giving members of faculty the opportunity to gain a real insight into some of the issues that might otherwise be difficult for students to express, be hidden or otherwise overlooked. It was also an interesting observation that when the members of faculty started to comment and even correct some of information exchanged on the platform it had a negative impact on the contributions made by the students, as it changed how people felt they could interact through these channels, essentially damaging the spirit of the online community. Of course there are issues around misinformation being spread through social media and I sympathise that a platform which has affiliations with a higher education institution needs to not be seen promoting misinformation. However, even if social media platforms are sometimes used to exchange knowledge it has to be remembered that it is not a classroom and nor does it try to be. Yes it is a shame that misinformation and negativity is rife throughout social media, but it has been adopted as a place for people to voice their views and sometimes we may run into attitudes and opinions that differ from our own: “Openness inevitably brings with it challenges, and by being open you will facilitate views that you dislike or challenge your own views”. This can be regarded to be a double edged sword. However, I feel this should be recognised and embraced otherwise we risk locking ourselves into an echo chamber, never hearing anything which goes contrary to our own way of thinking.

Using social networks to share knowledge (Picture is used with permission by the very talented artist: Leendert Masselink)

The concept of sharing knowledge discussed by Carly also resonate in Sara Smith’s blog post, which explores the topic of utilising social media to promote her own work as well as sharing knowledge through these channels. Sara expressed her initial discomfort about writing a blog post claiming that the “assignment filled me with horror, anxiety and dread” and asked herself: “Why do I shy away from using social media and being actively rather than passively open?”. I must admit that I can relate to this statement especially in comparison to writing for an academic audience. Writing a research paper uses a certain style, language and almost a formulaic way of explaining things. More often than not I don’t always get it right, but to me learning to write in this way has become safe and a means to protect my work from scrutiny. Adapting my style of writing to be open and engaging to my peers through the medium of a blog post is something that does not come easily to me: “The use of social media technologies requires a much more personal level of openness which is uncertain. Reaching out to a wider audience requires a different way of working, different style of writing, a different language almost, and a different way of engaging and interacting”. So in order to be open we must also take some risks. Sara also expressed how she once regarded the concept of writing blog posts to be: “self-centred, narcissistic, self-promoting and mostly vacuous” whilst linking it to her own feelings of discomfort around self-promotion. The notion of feeling uncomfortable with promoting your own work is common within academia, and it has been reported that female academics are even less likely to share their achievements than their male counterparts which has a direct negative impact on their career prospects.

When referring back to the start of Sara’s academic career in 2007, she describes how social media had a very different role: “During this time the perceptions from some senior academics was that these activities were not adding value, that I was wasting my time and effort on activities that were not a priority for my ‘career development’”. This indicates towards the changing role social media has had within academia, as ten years ago it was thought of as something of a waste of time. But now its use is not only imperative as a means to share and access research material but also contributes to the building of an academic career. Sara confirms this by describing the process of promoting her own work through these channels: “Embracing social media and being open for me is about reaching out to wider audiences with a clear vision of why you want to do it and how. Many of my initial concerns have been attenuated. To some extent it is about detaching oneself from the research output and becoming the press office and promoter of the research”. However, as promoting work through social media is becoming increasingly part of the research process it could be argued that the lines between researcher and promoter of research are not so much detached from each other but are becoming increasingly blurred.

Sharing research via social media can be likened to presenting research at conferences; instead the use of social media opens the opportunity for the research to be shared to a broader audience, going beyond the limitations of a conference. To ensure that the work reaches the right audiences researchers are being encouraged to promote their own work through these channels. The use of specialist academic social networks is also actively encouraged by institutions and the academic community to raise profiles, subsequently increasing circulation and then citation. Niche forms of social media can be utilised for specific reasons and when applied to the area of research it can be vital in the sharing of knowledge and findings to a wider community. Specialist social networking sites aimed purely at academics such as ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Mendeley are mainly used to share and recommend research articles. Through the sharing of our work we get the added value of raising our profiles and connecting with our peers. Some of these networks also have other features such as citation counts, alerts and built in reference management tools. Matthews (2016) highlights that they are “a valuable way of getting publications online and making them publicly available, as it is often a lot quicker and less restrictive than the processes for depositing items in their institutional repository”. Researchers are demanding easier and faster access to results when the current publishing system of academic journals is a slow process in comparison to the immediacy of the Internet. Currently the sharing of research articles through social media is mainly restricted by publishers (unless the researcher has paid to make their article Gold Open Access or if the agreed embargo period has passed), although the sharing of journal articles is openly encouraged on these sites even without obtaining permission from the publisher. An available feature on some of these sites allows researchers to contact authors of research papers to request a copy of the article, then it provides the author the option to ‘Upload full text’ or by using the more discreet method of allowing the option to ‘send privately’, which more often goes against the copyright restrictions outlined by publishers.

Of course I am an advocate for the sharing of knowledge through any means possible and I’d also have to admit I respect and enjoy the audacity of how certain platforms encourage this against publisher copyright restrictions. However, sharing outputs through academic social networking sites is not the same as making them Open Access. They are not currently being monitored by an official governing body nor can they ensure the long term preservation of the work. Along with the fact that you still have to be an academic and/or have a university email address to sign up to certain sites such as ResearchGate means that they are not as open and accessible as they initially appear. So papers still need to be deposited into an institutional repository in order for them to be compliant for the HEFCE Open Access mandate. If anything it could be argued that having multiple channels for the sharing of research (including sharing via an institutional repository) confuses matters for researchers and just uses up more of their time. Sara points out that keeping on top of updating social media profiles and the development of an online community takes time to cultivate: “Creating and maintaining an effective social media presence requires a significant investment of time. We already have plenty of things we need to focus on”. Being able to use these networks and self-promote are skills that also need to be learned and developed in order to utilise these platforms to their fullest potential: “I received no training in public relations or engagement; I had to learn quickly to adapt my public speaking and my writing style for a general audience”. So in order to obtain the most value from these platforms researchers need to be increasingly strategic in their decisions when choosing social networking sites to build their profiles and invest their time.

The use of social media platforms are constantly put forward as an alternative to sharing research results, including suggestions around streamlining the publication process and new ways to peer review through online channels/forms of social media: “Scrapping peer review may sound radical, but actually by doing so we would be returning to the origins of science. Before journals existed, scientists gathered together, presented their studies and critiqued them. The web allows us to do that on a global scale” (Smith, 2015). This solution may seem infeasible to some and I admit that it is not without fault, but researchers are tied into the systems that have been verified to measure their outputs so there’s still reluctance within the research community to move away from tried and trusted publishing systems and explore other options. However, nothing will change or evolve unless the research community itself decides to embrace alternatives and do things differently.

Despite the added value they may bring there are also a number of controversies surrounding these networks. It has to be remembered that these are commercial social networking sites which are designed to make money and do have their own agendas such as the hope to sell user data in future. Andrews (2015) argues that researchers should look to boycott academic social networking sites and that they should refrain from giving away their work for free to these channels. Fitzpatrick (2016) argues that these for-profit platforms “threaten to erode the possibilities for genuine open access”. So do we use with caution or do we embrace whole heartedly to try to ensure the future success of our work? Researchers currently give away their work for free when publishing in journals in return for the branding and prestige of publishers. So is it really that different to sharing our work through commercial social networking sites with the hope to build our research careers?


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