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How to... use social software tools for research

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By Margaret Adolphus


The technologies of Web 2.0, which allow for the creation of vast amounts of information from many sources, have been taken up by the academe in teaching and learning, although a small but significant number of scholars are also using them for research.

The process of research has over the past decade or so become increasingly complex:

  • There has been a massive growth in information, resulting in huge volumes of data which need to be stored, processed and managed. According to a report by the Interactive Data Corporation, data produced by research are expected to grow in size to 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 × 1021 bytes) by 2011 (Kendall, 2009).
  • In addition, projects involving large-scale, multiple collaborators have become more common than individual study. Such projects frequently span institutions and in some cases, countries and continents.

And so researchers, particularly – but not exclusively – scientists, are using sophisticated tools to enable them to work more easily and productively. That an appropriate electronic infrastructure, which can store data, facilitate collaboration and generally support research processes in ways appropriate to the discipline or disciplines, is as important to researchers as good libraries, is gradually being realized. This infrastructure is often referred to as a virtual research environment, or VRE.

What is Web 2.0 and social software?

Web 2.0 applications include blogs, wikis, Twitter, media-sharing sites such as YouTube, 3D environments such as Second Life, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and social networking sites such as Facebook. What they share in common is that they all permit the user to create content, and this has led to them being termed the "ReadWriteWeb".

Web 2.0 is bidirectional, with content in a variety of media (text, images, rich media, links to other sites) being contributed by the people who interact with the site as well as those who manage it (MacDonald, 2007, quoted by Minocha, 2009). Software is not just the product of one mind: uses are co-developers and collective intelligence is harnessed.

How prevalent is its use with academics?

While one survey showed that 25 per cent of academics were using social media in 2008, an increase from the 3 or 4 per cent using it in 2006 (Wusterman, 2009), other results would suggest this figure is high. According to a report by the UK's Research Information Network (2010), only 13 per cent of its respondents used social media frequently, 45 per cent used it sporadically and 39 per cent not at all.

That survey found little difference between age groups, and early findings of a survey of Generation Y researchers, conducted by the British Library and the UK Universities Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), suggest that usage is between 10-30 per cent (Boulderstone, 2010).

This is not, however, to say that use of social media for research can be ignored: for particular communities, such as those in the biological sciences, or bioinformatics, it is very important. In the UK, JISC is running a programme which ends in 2011, and which is funding 24 VREs. In Europe, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure covers a number of key initiatives, including the Digital Research Infrastructure for Arts and Humanities. Although the UK is definitely a leader in this area, a British man (Ian Dolphin) has taken over the Sakai project in the US. Sakai is an open source collaborative learning environment which is looking to focus towards VRE development.