Research gets social: new SFU study examines the everyday impact of academic research

July 29, 2016

Does the general public use the information disseminated in academic papers?

SFU publishing professor Juan Pablo Alperin wants to know, and he’s taking an innovative approach to find out. 

With a three-year, $217,401 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), he’s using social media to discover the societal impacts of academic research.

Alperin and his research team, which includes SFU communication professor Katherine Reilly, will use qualitative data and responses from surveys and interviews to develop a conceptual framework that explores how academic research is shared  on social media platforms.

To gather the data, Alperin will test innovative methods, such as using automated bots to ask questions and determine how many people sharing research on social media are actually researchers. And if they’re not researchers, he wants know why they’re sharing the information and how they used it.

“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,” he says.

The researchers will also draw from the emerging discipline of altmetrics, which uses social media measures, such as number of mentions, as an alternative way of evaluating an academic publication’s 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,” says Alperin, who is also a research associate with the Public Knowledge Project.  

“The findings could show that the impact of academic work is much broader and more varied than we often assume, and may even encourage more researchers to share their findings with social media.”  

Alperin and Reilly are joined on the research team by fellow communication professor Florence Millerand from the Université du Québec à Montréal. Rounding out the team are information science experts from the Université de Montréal: professor Vincent Larivière and postdoctoral researcher Stefanie Haustein