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How to...use Twitter for academic research

Options:     Print Version - How to...use Twitter for academic research, part 2 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Twitter and how can one use it?
  3. Using Twitter for particular aspects of research
  4. Networking
  5. Summary
  6. References

What is Twitter and how can one use it?

Twitter is best described as a cross between blogging and instant messaging. It allows the user to send a short message of not more that 140 characters (known as a tweet).

Such messages are free, and can be trivial as in the examples above, or pertinent, with links to articles, web pages, blogs, videos, photos, and other media.

In fact, this type of activity is known as micro-blogging. However, whereas conventional blogging is often confined to a single author, Twitter is more interactive: it can create a conversation that anyone can join.

One of its fundamental principles is that you elect to follow those whose conversations most interest you: these become your “Twitter feed”.

Twitter’s immediacy has meant that it has played a key role in many contemporary events, such as the Arab Spring.

Getting started with Twitter

Getting started with Twitter is easy. The first thing is to sign up with a Twitter account, on

You need to provide your name, email address and password, as well as a user name which will identify you to other potential followers.

You will also need to provide some details of yourself, which is where you need to think carefully about what you want to use twitter for, and who your likely followers will be. Your main object may be to network about your research – in which case, that is what you will focus on.

You can also set up Twitter as a group account, for example for your research group or department.

Once you are set up, the next stage is to start following people. You can use the search box to search for named colleagues, friends, research groups or institutions. Other ways include:

  • Use keywords – for example, if your field is artificial intelligence, then you could type that into the search box to yield people who had interesting things to say.
  • On your profile page, there are some recommendations: “similar to you”.
  • Follow the people who post interesting tweets that you want to pass on or “retweet”.
  • Look at your followers’ followers.

Once you have started following people, you will find that they often start following you. Twitter is very reciprocal.

You can stop following someone simply by going into your list of followers which appears on your profile page, and mouse over the follow bar until the word “unfollow” comes up, then click.

You can also block someone sending spam or malware by clicking on their name, then on the small head icon next to the “follow” button, when options to block or report will appear.

How to write a good tweet

There are certain conventions and styles for tweets. Mollett et al. (2011) describe three:

  1. The conversational style, as in “What I had for breakfast” etc., fragmented and makes use of abbreviations.
  2. The official, or substantive, style, written in complete sentences often with a link to another document.
  3. A middle ground, more informal than 2., but still containing important information and probably a link.

The third style may be the most appropriate for a small unit such as a research group. Note that abbreviations and textspeak, except in the case of very informal tweets, are less likely to be read.

Below are some examples taken from the Academic Commons at Columbia University. You will see that these refer to articles, presentations, etc.

Image: Example tweets

You can tweet directly on Twitter’s web page, or you can use:

  • Tweetdeck ( which has some added value features, such as columns for arranging your tweets, scheduling, and automatic shortening of URLs.

Twitter has its own syntax and conventions.

Sign Significance
@ The most important symbol in Twitter, refers to individual users. @username is hyperlinked and clicking on it enables you to reply to that question, although in a public forum. It is also used if you want to mention another user.
# The hashtag another important symbol, which bestows metadata on the word it is linked with. The word can be an event, publication, discipline etc. It assists searchability both for the tweet concerned and also for other tweets that hashtag the same word.
Shortened URLs Most URLs will obviously been too long for Twitter, so they can be shortened using or

The following example, an Emerald tweet about a new book, Cycling and Sustainability, demonstrates some of these conventions:

Image: Twitter example

Note how the Emerald Transport list has its own Twitter account; how the words Transport and Sustainability are both hashtagged so that the book can easily be found through keyword search, also the reader is linked to other relevant Twitter accounts; the shortened URL linking to the book page; and finally, how the book’s title is not differentiated from the rest of the text by being italicized.

As with blogging, it is important to build up a critical mass. Be aware of signal to noise ratio: avoid too many trivial tweets and make the majority relevant and useful, with links (Reed and Evely, 2011).

Don’t tweet about a number of things in bursts; schedule your tweets throughout the day when people are likely to be reading them, say 11-12 and 2-3.

Finally, be careful about your reputation, and that of the institution you represent. Don’t tweet anything which could be detrimental to either, and avoid tweeting when you feel angry or are drunk.