Social media have become serious academic tools for many scholars, who use them for collaborative writing, conferencing, sharing images, and other research-related activities. So says a study just posted online called "Social Media and Research Workflow." Among its findings: Social scientists are now more likely to use social-media tools in their research than are their counterparts in the biological sciences. And researchers prefer popular applications like Twitter to those made for academic users.
The survey, conducted late last year, is the work of Ciber, as the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research is known. Ciber is an interdisciplinary research center based in University College London's department of information studies. It takes on research projects for various clients. This one was paid for by the Emerald Publishing Group Ltd. The idea for the survey came from the Charleston Observatory, the research arm of the annual Charleston Conference of librarians, publishers, and vendors.
An online questionnaire went to researchers and editors as well as publishers, administrators, and librarians on cross-disciplinary e-mail lists maintained by five participating publishers—Cambridge University Press; Emerald; Kluwer; Taylor & Francis; and Wiley. Responses came from 2,414 researchers in 215 countries and "every discipline under the sun," according to David Nicholas, one of the lead researchers on the study. He directs the department of information studies at University College London. .
The questionnaire focused on eight categories of social-media use: in collaborative writing (e.g., via Google Docs); conferencing; online-scheduling and -meeting arrangements; social networking (Facebook, etc.); image- or video-sharing (e.g., via Flickr and YouTube); blogging; microblogging (Twitter, for instance); and social tagging and bookmarking.
Social Sciences Speed Up
The survey "showed that social scientists and humanists were the biggest users of social media," said Mr. Nicholas. "These people have lived in a sort of second-rate system in which information was disseminated very slowly. Thanks to social media—Facebook and all the rest of it—they're finding they can operate at the same speed as scientists."
Eighty-four percent of social scientists who took part in the survey reported using social-media tools in their research; the figure for arts and humanities was 79.2 percent, for the biological sciences, 78.3 percent; and for the health sciences, 74.8 percent.
Mr. Nicholas said popular social-media tools such as Skype and Twitter had gotten more traction with researchers than had subject-based tools aimed at specific disciplines or communities of researchers.
"They're easy, they're off the shelf, no problem in using them," he said. Researchers "would much rather use those than specialized brands."
The Ciber team is now conducting focus groups to get at some of the stories behind the findings. In those gatherings, Mr. Nicholas has heard rumors of scholarly revolution. For instance, he said, participants say social media are "being used as an alternative to the existing system by young researchers who feel frustrated" by the tight control that senior scholars and traditional publishers have over the selection and dissemination of research.
Good papers increasingly turn up in the social-media networks, according to people in these focus groups. "They're even beginning to question peer review," Mr. Nicholas said. "They were honestly saying it's more important to contact and connect with loads of people than simply pay homage to one or two authorities."
Some publishers who provided contact information for the survey have sat in on the focus groups as well. Mr. Nicholas described them as feeling caught "in a cleft stick": Their databases of journal content remain lucrative and are more used than ever, but researchers' growing ability and desire to share information freely is providing competition. Publishers "are getting quite twitchy, because they don't know how to link the two together or even if they can," he said.
In the survey, responses from librarians and others were separated in order to focus on researchers' behavior. Librarians ought to be especially concerned by what's coming out in these discussions of social-media use, Mr. Nicholas said, because "nobody is talking about librarians' being involved at all in this." The academic use of such tools may leave libraries out in the cold, he said. "There's a lot of soul-searching that needs to be done on the part of librarians, because this is their constituency."