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How to...use Twitter for academic research

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 https://twitter.com.

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 (www.tweetdeck.com) 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 bitly.com or tinyurl.com.

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.

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.

References

Batey, M. (2010), "The tweetment of research", blog posting on Working Creativity March 16th 2010, available at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/working-creativity/201003/the-tweetment-research, accessed June 13th 2012.

Lee, H. (2008), "Twitter for Research: Why and How to Do It, Including Case Studies", blog posting on twitip December 3rd 2008, accessed June 14th 2012.

Mollett, A., Moran, D. and Dunleavy, P. (2011) Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities. Impact of social sciences: maximizing the impact of academic research, LSE Public Policy Group, London School of Economics and Political Science., London, UK.

This version available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/38489/ Originally available from LSE Public Policy Group Available in LSE Research Online: September 2011.

Reed, M. & Evely, A.(2011) Top Twitter Tips for Academics. Sustainable Learning, p.1-12.

Reinhardt, W., Ebner, M. , Beham, G., Costa, C., (2009) ‘How People are using Twitter during Conferences’, Draft Version - Originally published in: Creativity and Innovation Competencies on the Web, Hornung-Prähauser, V., Luckmann, M. (Ed.) Proceeding of 5. EduMedia conference, p. 145-156, Salzburg

C. Ross, M. Terras, C. Warwick, A. Welsh, (2011),"Enabled backchannel: conference Twitter use by digital humanists"’, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 Iss: 2 pp. 214 – 237. Permanent link to this document:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00220411111109449, Downloaded on: 11-06-2012

Rowse, D. (2008), "How to Ask Effective Questions on Twitter", blog posting on twitip on November 21st 2008, accessed June 14th 2012.

Veletsianos, G. (2011), "Higher education scholars' participation and practices on Twitter". Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00449.x