Research

Research gets Social: New study uses social media to explore public applications of academic knowledge    

May 24, 2016
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By Rachael Eedy

Academics and social media may seem like opposites. Academic learning should be the focus of university students during lecture; Facebook should not. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, while academic publications go on a little longer.

Dr. Juan Pablo Alperin sees beyond conventional stereotypes to new opportunities where social media and academic knowledge intersect. This Simon Fraser University professor knows that researchers and members of the public are using social media to share information: patient groups are discussing the latest medical research, agricultural professionals are learning new ways to manage crops, and tweeting has become commonplace at academic conferences.

It would appear that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) agrees. It has awarded a three year grant to Dr. Alperin, who will lead a research team exploring the societal impact of academic publications through social media. The new study will draw from the emerging discipline of altmetrics, which uses social media measures like number of mentions as an alternative way of evaluating academic publication reach. 

 “What’s exciting about the social media piece is that we can capture the digital traces in a way that we couldn’t before to see the societal value of research,” notes Dr. Alperin. “What I want to get is real stories of people who have taken research literature and put it to use in their personal lives, their work, or community.”

The research team will test innovative methods such as using automated bots to question individual users on Twitter. Responses from surveys and interviews will be combined with qualitative data to create a conceptual framework of research sharing on social media platforms.

There’s been quite a bit of related work counting things on social media, but there has been very little work about who people are and why are they are sharing academic knowledge,” explains Dr. Alperin. “The findings could show that the impact of academic work is much broader and more varied that we often assume.” The study may even encourage more researchers to share their findings with social media.  

Dr. Alperin has a background well-suited to interdisciplinary study. An Assistant Professor in the Master of Publishing program, he holds degrees in Education, Geography and Computer Science. He is also a long-time member of the Public Knowledge Project, a multi-university initiative that supports public access to scholarly knowledge. With over one thousand followers on Twitter (@juancommander), Dr. Alperin finds it to be an excellent place to discuss research.     

Dr. Alperin is joined in his new study by an equally interdisciplinary team, including communications scholars Katherine Reilly at Simon Fraser University and Florence Millerand at Université du Québec à Montréal. Vincent Larivière and Stefanie Haustein at the Université de Montréal are the team’s information science experts.

Applications are being accepted until June 1st, 2016 for a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Alperin on this new study. This position is ideal for a person with creative research design skills and interest in altmetrics, communication and social science. 

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