Social Media and the REF

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It is widely recognized that social media and academia can work well together. Social media can be an effective means of growing name recognition, building peer networks, and disseminating ideas outside the traditional peer review environment. Universities now see social media as a powerful tool for public engagement. And the dark side of social media is no less familiar – we’ve all heard cautionary tales about academics publishing career-damaging remarks or images on forums they naively assumed would be for private circulation only.

Both aspects of social media apply to the REF as much as they do to any other aspect of academic, or indeed, professional life. But the difference with the REF is lies in its emphasis on dissemination of research through both publication and impact – and such dissemination is precisely what social media enables, to an unprecedented degree, with no barriers in the researcher’s path.

The question of whether social media can help or hinder an individual’s or department’s REF return is emerging as a potentially thorny issue as universities make preliminary preparations for the next round. How should high-profile blogs and other digital publications be returned, for instance? How can the often spectacular ‘reach’ of social media - that potentially far outstrips that of traditional, hard-copy publication - be mapped onto the impact agenda? These are just some of the questions that arise when considering the relationship of social media to the REF.

A paradigm shift?

Underlying the debates about social media in universities lies a deeper question concerning the ownership of knowledge and the status of expertise. Universities are struggling to come to grips with what social media mean for the traditional model of knowledge as the property of experts, developed through the accumulation of peer consensus over time, and through traditional publication outlets which stand as guarantors of expertise. Social media has changed all that, with requirements on academics not to guard expertise, but to open it up to rigorous public debate.

What about the REF?

So where does this leave your keen academic blogger, eagerly publishing her thoughts on her research and the world each week, and with a large and highly engaged audience?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, in current circumstances such work is extremely likely to be considered ‘non-returnable’ as one of any individual academic’s given research outputs – since blogs are usually self-published, and therefore have no publisher’s imprimatur and do not meet the requirements of pre-publication peer review.

Secondly, under ‘impact’, it is again unlikely that evidence of social media engagement alone – on however large a scale - will be sufficient to form an impact case study. As I have written about before, impact consists of work that is both embedded in research, and that has demonstrable ‘reach’ – i.e. that has enhanced people’s skills, knowledge or abilities. Rigorous evidence of this would be required before blogs or similar forms of engagement with social could be considered as an uncontroversial element of a REF return.

But change is in the air. The movement towards open access publishing in universities may well lead to some sort of synergy between emerging university publishing imprimaturs and social media platforms. Themselves a symptom of the paradigm shift in the production of knowledge outlined above, open access requirements are making universities re-think conventional publishing models entirely. Universities are taking the opportunity to develop their own modern-day publishing outlets or imprimaturs - in the form of Institutional OA repositories, as well as through their own online courses, podcasts and so on. Blogs, micro-blogs and other social media may well be incorporated in this overarching shift towards open access. The challenge for universities is how to square the circle – how to include social media under their own imprimatur without limiting its potential appeal to a mass public.

A word of advice

All this will no doubt change over the next few years. So until then, the best advice is to blog, tweet, and use social media as much as possible - but remember that impact is all about showing evidence of reach through research outputs. In other words, do not neglect traditional peer review publication. It’s still the only way universities can guarantee that the knowledge disseminated is expert, and not just another voice in the crowd.

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