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Mobilising knowledge through social media: getting the right ideas to the right people

29th April 2021

Author: Scott Taylor is Research Services Manager at the University of Manchester.

The role of universities in public life is attracting much debate right now, but an uncontroversial opinion is that one of the reasons they exist is to allow researchers to create new knowledge for the improvement of society. As an academic librarian, it's an opinion I share, and one which gives me a sense of purpose to my role.

Each year researchers produce ever increasing volumes of research articles, in 2018 over 2.5 million articles were published [1] in scientific and technical journals alone. Leaving aside the very real problems caused by the publish-or-perish culture which has driven this explosion, that's a lot of new knowledge.

But there's a growing feeling that despite an increasing proportion of this research being shared without a paywall, it's not fully realising the societal benefits because the language is too inaccessible, resulting in some audiences becoming less receptive to science communication.

Nicole Froio of the University of York tweeted, "Overly complicated language and intellectual posturing keeps important information from people who need it most... If you can't figure out how to explain a complicated term in simple ways, you're gatekeeping research." [2]

Complex research topics will always need domain-specific technical language, and it is often not the researchers who are best placed to fully mobilise the knowledge, especially outside of the applied sciences. To help make the research socially useful it's therefore crucial to translate and target findings towards individuals and groups who can use it to improve the world in some way.

There are many barriers to achieving this, not least because translating work for non-scientists takes time to do well and isn't as rewarded as other activities such as publishing and winning grants. Researchers have many competing pressures on their time and if these activities aren't valued then they won't happen.

Whilst there's a general perception that journals do a good job of sharing content to academic audiences, at the University of Manchester Library, we've been exploring methods to explain new scientific research in an accessible way to individuals and groups outside of the researcher's field on their behalf.

We've focused our efforts on Twitter as it provides a massively scalable channel through which the university can interact with the outside world. New machine learning technologies [3] are opening up exciting possibilities for generating plain language descriptions of journal articles. With social media listening tools it's also becoming possible to identify the networked communities that form around particular research topics.

Our approach has been to produce Twitter threads [4] that describe and link to open access papers written by Manchester authors which we can then target to particular user accounts by tagging them in. The hope is that these threads then diffuse beyond the immediate academic networks. 

We've written up our approach and early findings in this article, [5] but the key thing to note is that we're still in the very early stages of social media and there are still well over a billion people who don't have access to the web. There is huge potential for knowledge mobilisation through social media and we're only beginning to take the first steps.

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