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Social Media as a Metaphor for Scholarly Communication

May 3, 2015

In March, I was fortunate to attend the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) biennial conference in Portland, Oregon.

By far, my favorite program was the all-day ScholComm Camp, held just before the conference began. Organized by Amy Buckland of the University of Chicago, Carmen Mitchell of California State University at San Marcos, and Char Booth of the Claremont Colleges, this was an un-conference in which the participants crowd-sourced topics of interest on scholarly communication. These topics included library publishing, copyright, altmetrics, and finding different ways to talk about scholarly communication. (You can see the agenda and some notes from the camp here:

Regarding the latter, I’ve spent some time over the last couple of years doing just that, trying out different messages with different audiences, from undergraduates to recent Ph.D. recipients to veteran faculty. Why? Because scholarly communication is primarily a library term, one that means little or nothing outside our own buildings and professional literature.

During this discussion, one of the attendees (and, sorry, I can’t remember her name as I’d like to give her credit) made what I considered to be a provocative statement: That she teaches undergrads about scholarly communication by calling it “social media for researchers.” She referred to scholarly communication as social media, she said, because the latter is a term that undergrads can identify with more readily.

At first, in my head, I rejected calling scholarly communication social media—-it seemed like an oversimplification of a complex set of processes that has developed over hundreds of years. How is the burgeoning role of library as publisher related to social media? How do the nuances and complexities of copyright law resemble Facebook and Twitter?

But the more I thought about the statement and considered how I have used examples from social media to explain scholarly communication topics, the more I started to reconsider my initial negative reaction.

For example, I have discussed memes as a way to convey the idea of transformative works under U.S. copyright law. How you create a meme–an image from one source, perhaps a quote from another source or your own commentary, juxtaposed in a way to convey a new meaning–works well when explaining different aspects of copyright law and the doctrine of fair use. Mash-ups and remixes can be used in this regard, too. Together all three examples illustrate the challenges of traditional copyright and the benefits of copyleft or copyright+ approaches, such as Creative Commons (CC) licenses. With CC and other copyleft licenses, a creator easily communicates how others can reuse a work or immediately place the work in the public domain. Doing so would certainly foster the original intent of copyright in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8), “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

I have discussed faculty research profiling sites and systems, such as Social Science Research Network (SSRN),, Symplectic, and my university’s own institutional repository, referring to them as “online dating sites for faculty.” Just as no two dating sites or apps are alike, I suggest that researchers find the profile site that’s most appropriate to their discipline. And just as online dating requires a certain amount of extroversion to showcase “who’s the hottest,” researchers may have to be a bit more extroverted in marketing themselves so as to make others aware of their research interests and possibly find new research partners.

I’ve used Facebook and Twitter as ways to convey the concept of research impact metrics–how many likes and favorites do you get and what do they mean? Is the like from your Mom or Dad as meaningful to you as a like from your BFF or a colleague? Do you sometimes feel you have to like a post, even though you might not want to or agree with it? Do some posts get shared and liked more because they seem clever or are highly topical but, in reality, maybe aren’t that novel or of long-lasting interest? These are some of the same challenges in understanding research impact and metrics I would argue.

And I’ve also used blogging and microblogging tools, such as WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter, as examples of new modes of scholarly publishing. They are non-traditional forms of scholarly communication, but they may have a huge impact, highlighting new or existing research and making scholarship more a part of public consciousness, than a monograph or journal article might.

I still think social media as a metaphor for scholarly communication has its limits. It might be a stretch to apply it to all scholarly communications topics. I still can imagine hesitating as I glibly describe to a group of faculty members that their sharing of scholarship is akin to social media. I think for researchers terms like reputation management or research impact would resonate better.

The curmudgeon in me resists simplifying things too much for students or anyone else. In a quotation often attributed to Mark Twain (but apparently not said by him), it has been noted that “for every problem, there is always a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.” And yet the curmudgeon in me is willing to concede that using social media as a metaphor to explain scholarly communication may actually be a good, simple, and not wrong-headed way to convey a complex message to researchers both new and veteran.

Who probably don’t know what the term scholarly communication means anyway!

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