ESRC Final Year Conference 2014 reviewed

Conference dinner at the National Museum of Scotland

Conference dinner at the National Museum of Scotland by Kate Cowan, @katecowan

This year’s ESRC final year conference was hosted by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science. I was pleased join the delegates at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) on Friday 25th April as one of the presenters.

The heavy emphasis on research impact, career pathways, and sources of future funding at the conference was well-suited to the needs of the delegates, the majority of whom were doctoral students approaching their final submission dates. I also enjoyed talking to the students about their research and career aspirations in the breaks between sessions, and during the poster display at the drinks reception immediately prior to the conference dinner.

After a warm welcome from Professor Graham Crow of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science, and an introduction to the ESRC by its CEO Professor Paul Boyle, the formal proceedings of the day were organised around themed plenaries on:

  1. Independent research with speakers Dr Jim Johnston, Scottish Parliament; Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen; and Professor Susan McVie, University of Edinburgh
  2. Pathways to impact with speakers Julie Guy, Scottish Government, and Barbara Doig, Academy of Sciences
  3. Funding applications and process with speaker Tracy Davies, ESRC

In addition, the students had the opportunity to participate in two breakouts from a choice of three: (1) What can big data do for you? (2) Career development in social science; and (3) Using social media for impact. They also took part in a workshop focused on a mock panel exercise. After the formal proceedings were over at the EICC, the day continued into the late evening with a drinks reception, poster session, dinner, and fabulous ceilidh at the National Museum of Scotland.

The two plenary papers from ESRC staff – Professor Paul Boyle and Tracy Davies (Deputy Head of Skills and Methods) – made clear the priorities of the research councils, the nature of the work that they fund, important current and future research themes (for example, big data), and the need for attention to planned outreach and public engagement activities to increase research impact. Davies’ explanation of funding schemes prompted the most post-presentation comments of the day, with many questions related to the Future Leaders scheme.

Career advice was a common theme that ran through all the presentations. For example, Professor Michael Keating cautioned the delegates against hyper-specialism, and Dr Jim Johnston emphasised how satisfying it can be to undertake a professional research career in a small country like Scotland where the links between researchers and policy-makers are close. Drawing on the long experience of her research career, Barbara Doig highlighted that social science can be considered as a business with its own mechanisms of supply and demand, and array of raw materials and tools. Julie Guy advised that researchers have the freedom as to whether or not to take on a research project, explaining that it is her practice is to consider very carefully the potential outcomes of any proposed research before agreeing to any work.

Professor Susan McVie’s presentation included coverage of the challenges of independent research. She spoke about dealing with politics and the media, as well as the difficulties of communicating complex findings effectively. I was really pleased that her contribution was scheduled to come immediately before the breakouts because she (unintentionally) set the context for my session which followed.

At the session on using social media for impact

At the session on using social media for impact

My remit was to deliver a one-hour interactive session on the theme of social media for impact to two groups of around 70 students, whose level of skill was unknown. At the time that I agreed to do this I considered it a rather tall order. However, after some thought I came up with a plan which involved a game of bingo as a means of encouraging the students to discover the social media practice amongst their peers, and to initiate discussions of individuals’ levels of social media engagement. As the students approached one another to consider the sample tools listed on the coloured bingo cards, they extended their knowledge of the sheer range of social media available to help increase research impact. Then, in groups, they shared practical suggestions and recommendations on the use of social media to develop an online presence for work-related purposes, both at a personal and project level. After the groups related the headlines from their discussions (advice included “Beware the time commitment” and “Use the tools in combination”), I ran through the benefits of maintaining an online presence on particular sites, and gave some pointers on how researchers might distinguish where they should be from where they could be.

At an absolute minimum, I advise that research students ensure they have an up to date presence on their own university web pages, a LinkedIn account, registrations on the main ID and research profile sites, and an about.me page. I only advocate blogging for those who (a) feel that they really need a full, independent online profile, (b) genuinely enjoy writing, and (c) are prepared to give up their free time to maintain their site (as I do – this post was written over the course of two weekends, and not in work time). My slides from the session, with the summary of my advice and links, are available on SlideShare.

Although I was not formally told in advance of the general level of social media engagement amongst the ESRC-funded doctoral student community, I picked up some clues from watching the #esrchphd hashtag in the run up to the conference. On the basis that very few tweets were exchanged by delegates before the meeting in Edinburgh, I gained the impression that the members of this group are not as active online as others I know, such as the library and information science community. This was further confirmed in the morning sessions at the conference when I noticed how few people were tweeting the proceedings. In fact, it seemed quite strange to me to be sitting in an auditorium where laptops, tablets and phones were largely absent from the tables. These observations indicated to me that only a minority of ESRC-funded students already use social media to support their research.

From the workshop discussions and follow-up conversations in the breaks, I discovered that those who are not users of social media lack a general awareness of the wide variety of tools available to support research activity. Equally, they have not been exposed to the “serious” application of social media for a range of applications in a research context (including, but not confined to, increasing research impact). A number of evident misunderstandings were also voiced in my two sessions, the most frequent of which was that the deployment of social media in research is simply a question of widening communication channels, or a form of “slick dissemination”, and a waste of time. This view denies the role of social media in other key research activities such as community building and the underpinning of relationships in face-to-face networks. It also fails to recognise how social media provide access to resources. If you integrate social media into your work, for example: you enlarge opportunities to hear about early research findings in blog postings; to download full-text research papers from research profile services; to enhance teaching through the reuse of materials from resource sharing sites; to explore possible partnership opportunities through identifying shared or complementary expertise of others on CV, researcher profile, and ID sites.

To actively ignore social media as an early career researcher is analogous to refusing to go to conferences in a particular geography, or failing to use all the relevant resources of an academic library. As Julie Guy pointed out in the afternoon session entitled Pathways to impact, “In order to have impact, you need to have influence”. If you are not known, then your influence is minimal. The argument of “My supervisors don’t use social media and yet they have had very successful careers” may hold true for earlier generations of academic researchers. However, these people are almost certainly well-established in their own research communities on the basis of efforts made prior to the recent availability of these new tools. This earlier generation is also unlikely to be concerned about the question of measurement by altmetrics in the future. For the majority of delegates gathered at the EICC on 25th April and their contemporaries these new means of assessing the value of research output will become more important as their careers progress. (There is already empirical evidence that articles that receive blog citations close to their publication time attract more journal citations than articles in the same journals published in the same year that do not receive such blog citations.)

SGS banner

The banner of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science

In short, for the new generation of academic researchers, engagement with social media for research is not optional. As Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics wrote in a recent post to Medium (one of the tools that I highlighted in my session) entitled Are you an academic hermit?:

“Researchers still need to reassess their stance and to try systematically to reverse years of quiet solitude by going out into the digital world and making their name and works as well known as they can possibly be. There is no point at all in undertaking research, and authoring papers and books about it at great pains and over many months or years, but then not doing your level best to communicate your corpus of work to professional and wider audiences.”

Likewise, as Bonnie Stewart argued recently in a blog post entitled What counts as academic influence online? a presence on social media is part of an academic’s identity and reputation, and that “Twitter and social media are now a part of scholarship, as modes of communication and of scholarly practice.” It is also worth noting here that it is a much quicker job to set up an online presence as an early career researcher with few research outputs to record, than it is to do the job retrospectively when you have a large body of work to record on the various services.

I was pleased to see a number of tweets that indicated that my breakout session was appreciated. For example:

  • Kirsty Morton of Aston University tweeted from @Kirstymorton87 “Really useful presentation on using social media for research impact”
  • Kate Cowan of the Institute of Education remarked from @katecowan that “Using Social Media for Impact by @hazelh -highlight of the conference today”
  • Nicki Kindersley of Durham University tweeted from @nicki_dk “Wish I’d known some of the social media skills from @hazelh in my first year.”

I enjoyed delivering the session too, and I would be happy to run it again, ideally in a longer slot, for smaller groups.

I am also delighted to see that some students have taken action to enhance their social media presence since the conference. For example, Stephanie Lambert of Loughborough University has made a start on an About.me profile page, and Cord-Christian Drews of Aston University is tweeting from his account at @2cd. The impact of my session has also been felt beyond the target audience on 25th April 2014. Having heard of my session through social media Bonnie Stewart asked to “borrow” the bingo cards for use in a Masters class at University of Prince Edward Island’s Faculty of Education, Canada in the week following the conference, and another colleague at Manchester Metropolitan University intends to replicate the exercise in one of her classes too.

There are a couple of other reviews of the conference available elsewhere. See, for example, the review written by Strathclyde University information science student Lauren Smith. I particularly enjoyed reading this comment from Lauren:

“I’m part of a huge network of people who are social media users, and I was surprised (again) to find that in other disciplines there’s a lot of reluctance to use social media and the recurrent comment “oh but it’s such a waste of time, you must spend forever on it and it’s pointless”. I spent a lot of time in Hazel Hall’s session responding to that kind of response with the challenge “go on then, tell me your research topic and I’ll give you an example of how using social media can be useful!”

Dancing at the conference dinner ceilidh

Dancing at the ceilidh by Rachael Tordraighen, @RachaelTordraig

University of Manchester Education student Dimitrina Kaneva has also written a review of the conference on her blog. In additional the tweets from the day have  been storifyed.

It is impossible for these reports to convey the value (and fun) of a very full day’s conference in Edinburgh. It’s thanks to Professor Graham Crow and his team at the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science – Dr Tessa Parkes, Dr Simon Burnett, Dr Ed Hall, Janice Clark, Helene Frossling and Keira Farrell – that a serious day of discussion and fine evening of entertainment was enjoyed by all. I look forward to hearing how the research careers of the student delegates flourish in the future, and witnessing how they use social media to achieve this.

Further resources related to academics’ use of social media (added after April 2014)

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