An afternoon of advice from Thesis Whisperer Dr Inger Mewburn

The Thesis Whisperer

The home page of the Thesis Whisperer web site

What do you do when you hear that the Thesis Whisperer, Dr Inger Mewburn, is coming to town? If you’re my colleague Karen Strickland, you do all you can to tempt her onto the Edinburgh Napier University campus to share with colleagues her enthusiasm for social media as a means of marketing academic research.

I was pleased to be one of the Edinburgh Napier staff who participated at Inger’s excellent session last month on the afternoon of 24th September. Here she led a discussion with academics, PhD students, and marketing staff on how to improve the reach of our work through the strategic use of blogs and Twitter.

Inger structured her session around two presentations:

  1. Academic blogging for beginners
  2. How to tweet like a pro

The afternoon’s discussion began with questioning the reluctance of many academics to market their work, both in general, and through the deployment of social media tools. This is despite a growing body evidence that shows that research output that is made easily accessible online and highlighted by social media is more frequently downloaded and cited than that which is not. (See, for example, “Can tweets predict citations?” – one of the papers highlighted by Professor Blaise Cronin at the Altmetrics Day that I organised in June this year). Of course, given the theme of the workshop, those who had made the effort to attend were keen to develop their use of social media for professional purposes. Indeed some declared that they were already active users and busily tweeted throughout the afternoon using the hashtag #twedinburgh. The rest were determined to become more engaged after taking advice at this session.

Inger then spoke about some recent research conducted with Professor Pat Thomson in 2012 to investigate why academics blog. This is due to be published in a paper entitled “Academic blogging as an institutional/outstitutional community of practice? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges” in a special issue of Studies in Higher Education in 2014.

The content analysis of academic blogs selected for this study revealed some interesting findings, particularly when actual practice was compared with published advocacy on why academics should blog. These included the discovery that the type of posts that appear most frequently on academics’ blogs can be classified as “academic culture critique” – or, in short, “whinging”. Inger commented that it is almost as if these academics are using their blogs to moan about their work in a huge virtual staff room. This amused me greatly given that only a few days earlier I had posted an 850-word whinge of my own at http://hazelhall.org. Here I complained about the perception that academics take a three month holiday every summer when, in reality, their annual leave entitlement is often less generous than that of those who express their envy for this (supposed) perk of the job.

Perhaps of greater importance is that Inger and Pat identified in their study a number of themes and audiences that academics tend to ignore in their blogging activity. These bloggers regularly critique academic culture, disseminate their research, and provide descriptions of academic practice to an apparent audience of academics and professionals. However, they only infrequently demonstrate personal reflection or provide information and advice, for example on teaching and careers for an audience that comprises the educated public, students, and/or researchers. Inger pointed out that these findings show where there are opportunities for academic bloggers to fill “gaps in the market” for a wider audience.

Inger then outlined her five top tips for getting started with academic blogging:

  1. Fill a need: be clear who your audience is and how your blog could help this community.
  2. Have a good name: Inger mentioned how the name “Thesis Whisperer” works well in countries where the final report of a doctoral study is called a “thesis” as in the UK and Australia, but not so well where it is called a “dissertation”, as in North America.
  3. Build your channel plan: you need to have online presences elsewhere to direct readers to the content of your blog.
  4. Write your editorial guidelines: be useful, short, and consistent to encourage others to subscribe to your blog.
  5. Find ways to collaborate: Inger is a big fan of guest posts for blogs. (My own opinion is that this depends on the nature of the blog. If your blog is personal (like mine is at hazelhall.org), then inviting guest posts does not make sense. However, for other blogs with which I have been involved, such as that of the Library and Information Science Research Coalition, which I set up to provide a specific set of services, then this is good advice.)

I would also add to Inger’s tip list that you need to be clear how much time you can devote to maintain your blog. This is because without regular postings, your blog will not be a blog, but a simple web site instead. Similarly it is useful to identify which elements of your site can remain relatively static, yet still be useful to others. In the case of my own blog, for example, I upload just a few posts each month. Meanwhile I know that my about page, CV, publications and presentations listings (and the links to my actual papers and presentation slides), hand-out archive, the advice page for prospective PhD students, and my contact details need less regular attention, yet are well-used by visitors.

The thesis whisperer

Dr Inger Mewburn explains the difference between thin and thick tweets

Inger also spent some time passing on some valuable advice about tweeting practice. Even as someone who has been tweeting for quite a while, I picked up some good hints here. For example, an effective tweeter is like a good DJ who adds to the usual stock of floor fillers a mix of new tunes to interest the audience. I also learnt some vocabulary for techniques that I have been advocating in my own training in the use of Twitter. I now know, for example, that what I was trying to convey on slide 31 of my 2010 presentation Ten Twitter tips in ten minutes was the concept of “thick” tweets.

We ended the session with a general discussion of the growing importance of altmetrics (the theme of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science summer school event that I organised in June), the branding of academics, and the ownership of their social media content. Inger also told us about another research project in which she is involved that seeks to understand academia through food. She invited us to take a look at the Refreshments will be provided project page on tumblr and feel free to make contributions.

It was clear that all participants very much enjoyed their afternoon with the Thesis Whisperer and left the session with a clearer idea of how to locate and engage a wider audience interested in reading their research. The Twitter comments from others who were following the hashtag #twedinburgh from beyond Edinburgh Napier, and their retweeting of the live tweeting on-site delegates’ content, also showed that others had benefited from the session even though they could not be there in person.

Amongst those who participated remotely was Dr Katherine Wheat, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University. Katherine is also the co-founder of the ECRchat blog for early career researchers and author of the blog Life After Thesis. Katherine’s interest and remote involvement in the afternoon demonstrated some of the messages of the session. Until I saw Katherine’s tweeting that afternoon I was unaware that an online community of early career researchers meets regularly to chat online. I have now passed these details on to others, as well as enjoyed reading about Katherine’s Life After Thesis. Just by watching and commenting remotely on what was going on at Edinburgh Napier from the Netherlands on the afternoon of September 24th 2013, Katherine identified and engaged a new audience in her work, which is just what the Thesis Whisperer hoped that her session would teach us all that day.

Resources

There are links to the presentations that Inger gave at this session, as well as other valuable material related to the themes discussed here, on the left hand side bar of the Thesis Whisperer home page under the heading “Learn with the Whisperer”.

For further details of Inger and Pat’s study of academic bloggers, please see the summary in the slides from a presentation that they made at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference 2012.

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