Tweeting and blogging aren’t wastes of academics’ time – they can be valuable outreach

Blogging is a useful way for academics to draw the public to their work. Credit: Maksim Kabakou

For many academics of my acquaintance, physicists amongst them, using Twitter is regarded as a mere waste of time; social media in general are somehow seen as infra dig. Similarly, the most usual comment I get when I admit I blog is not a positive comment such as “how interesting” or “wow that’s a brilliant way to communicate” but the more prosaically negative “I would never have the time”, or “how do you have the time?”, said in an accusatory voice. Inevitably this not-so-subtly conveys the message that by blogging I am merely being frivolous and wasting my time.

Well, academics like evidence. So let’s look at some of the evidence around tweeting and blogging. Are they activities which are merely a waste of time? If you are reading this maybe you are already convinced that there is some point (or at least a fascination of horror) in blogging, even if you wouldn’t indulge in it yourself. But how many REF impact templates up and down the country have cited that someone in a particular Unit of Assessment regularly blogs about their work? I was struck recently, as the final submissions were coming together, how many people commented that their blog would indeed be featuring. Most blogsites enable statistics on page views to be collected, so, if it is felt metrics are required, that information is to hand. And if, as a novice blogger, you start to attract interest maybe you will find other sites wishing to host your posts – indeed, sites such as Physics Focus itself!

However, if a site is really to count as ‘impact’ in the particular way the REF implies, as opposed to any more workaday definition, then you need to demonstrate in some way that is not merely reaching an academic community. I’d like to think that my own sporadic blogging for the Guardian Science blogs suggests I am trying to reach a broad public audience and that (rather than my personal blog) was what got snuck into my local REF Impact Template. I don’t have proper metrics for that, but at least I can demonstrate I am writing for a wider public than simply physicists.

So where does the tweeting come in? For myself, I use tweeting as a way of picking up useful links to stories that I might otherwise miss. Recent relevant examples include the EPSRC’s search for ‘inspirational scientists and engineers’ and the Guardian story about Oxford researchers using DNA to control a nanoscale ‘train set’ . On any day when I have time to cast a cursory eye over my Twitter feed, I pick up a handful of stories that are of interest. I can then pass them on through my own tweets and provide links to other stories I come across myself. The tweet length of 140 characters ideally lends itself to a link plus a few words to explain why it’s interesting. It doesn’t take long and if I’m busy, not in the mood or on holiday it really doesn’t matter if I don’t interact with Twitter for days on end. It is totally under one’s own control how much to dive in, and I most certainly do not spend hours each day following thousands of other people’s minutiae. I could, of course, but have zero interest in doing so and the choice is entirely mine.

Nevertheless you may still feel ‘what’s the point?’ So let me point you to some further evidence more directly relating to what is undoubtedly a central activity of academic physicists: publishing papers and making sure they get read. A year ago a blogger and professor in digital humanities, Melissa Terras from UCL, carried out an experiment. The introduction to her blog on the subject summaries neatly what she did and what she discovered:

“Eager to find out what impact blogging and social media could have on the dissemination of her work, Melissa Terras took all of her academic research, including papers that have been available online for years, to the web and found that her audience responded with a huge leap in interest in her work.

“She could correlate exactly how the hits on the papers responded to the short messages she put out through her tweets. And the evidence was clear. As she said ‘Most of my papers, before I blogged and tweeted them, had one to two downloads, even if they had been in the repository for months (or years, in some cases). Upon blogging and tweeting, within 24 hours, there were, on average, 70 downloads of my papers.’ “

I will admit this isn’t a strategy I’ve tried out for myself. On a sample basis of one it isn’t perhaps totally convincing, but it is certainly intriguing. If you want to get your papers cited, the necessary first step is to get them read and this route seems a promising one to follow. So, by the time of the next REF, when all your papers are likely to be (to comply with open access policies) safely residing in a repository somewhere, if you have been tweeting about them as they appear, and maybe following up later with a nugget about the content of the paper to spark further interest, who knows what that might have done to your citation count?

So, isn’t it time you considered blogging and tweeting as part of your professional activity, not just something you ascribe as being only suitable for teenagers or those with time to kill?

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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