How to...use Twitter for academic research

Options:     Print Version - How to...use Twitter for academic research, part 3 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

Using Twitter for particular aspects of research

In the last section, we looked at general advice on how to create a solid Twitter presence. Here are some suggestions for some more specific aspects of research.

Obtaining live data

Twitter is excellent for obtaining data from a survey: you can set up a micro-blogging site and get responses from thousands of participants (Batey, 2010).

Twitter creates an automatic database of information in real time, which means, according to Hendry Lee (2008), that as it is archived it will become a unique source of historical information.

Take for example the following search results for the American presidential election in 2008:

Image: Search results for the American presidential election

Twitter will certainly be an important tool for future historical research, but as a data aggregator it will also be useful for any discipline that deals with contemporary events: politics, sociology, psychology, geography, economics for example.

You can use Twitter’s search button but there are a few designated Twitter search engines, including:

Researching topics

An important part of research is finding good secondary sources, and carrying out a literature review. Here again Twitter can help. You can use the above mentioned search engines; however, there is also TweetStats, which can measure the most often used keywords of people you know who are experts on a particular topic.

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London, which looks at digital technologies in geography, space, and the built environment, has already developed a research tool for Twitter.

The Tweet-o-Meter measures the amount of tweets correlated with place, and is designed to create a source of data that can be mined. This is a form of crowdsourcing (see Crowdsourcing as a research tool): in fact, Twitter offers an excellent tool for all sorts of crowdsourcing activities.

If you want to find out what’s topical at the moment, Twitter gives a list of "trending topics" at the bottom left hand corner of your home page. It’s automatically set to your nearest location, but there is an option to change.

You can also follow relevant academic libraries, research institutes and museums, quite a number of which are on Twitter.

A lot of people use Twitter as a way of getting answers to questions. Darren Rowse (2008) suggests a number of ways of doing this effectively:

  • Make the question relevant to the niche or topic you use Twitter for.
  • Respond with thanks to those who answer you, even if it is a collective thank you.
  • Hang around after you’ve asked the question – someone may want you to clarify something.
  • Allow the question and answer session to be turned into a conversation.

Dissemination

Most academics don’t need to be told that the research process ends with publication; it’s important to get the word out there and Twitter is excellent for this.

Use Twitter to showcase your published work: link to the whole work or to a summary if not on the open web.

You can also provide information about your research project, for example, key milestones, and to developments in the area as a whole, outside your own research which is a good way of giving a boost to the area as a whole.

In the example below from the London School of Economics Africa centre, the tweets often refer to outside initiatives or publications.

Image: Tweets from the London School of Economics Africa centre

Having a good presence on Twitter will help you demonstrate impact when you next apply for funding.

As well as promoting your work, you will also need to promote your Twitter account. You can easily include a link from your web page and your user name in your signature. Use hashtags to increase the likelihood of your feed showing up in searches, and ask people to retweet.

Don’t use Twitter in isolation, but link it in to an overall social media strategy. Twitter can be used particularly effectively alongside blogging.

For example, the British Politics and Policy group at the LSE has a blog, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/. Each blog posting is introduced by means of a catchy Twitter posting.

Image: Tweets from LSE politics and policy

Note the use of narrative wording which acts as a sort of headline to lead into the blog. It’s a good example of wise use of Twitter’s 140 characters: economy leads to effect.