Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Creating effective social media networks; why it isn't all about numbers.

In my current job I help researchers engage with the public about their research work. I talk with them about how they might engage with particular groups of people or how they might think about structuring a public talk. I especially like talking with people about different ways they can engage and how they might think about using online tools and social media to engage with others about what they are doing. This post is about maximising the potential of social media networks for engagement and measuring success online. It isn't all about the numbers....

The first thing I ask is, 'why do you want to do this?' Followed closely by, 'who is it you want to engage with or reach?' This second question is so important. It's no use chatting to fellow researchers and tweeting links to scientific research papers if you want to speak to people outside of the research field about their views on nature. Tailoring content and building the right network of contacts is so important to minimise wasted time and to use social media platforms to their full potential.

Now, social networks aren't all about a purpose or end goal. They can be a release and just an enjoyable place to spend a few hours. I didn't join social networks for the main purpose of personal gain. When I started to use twitter I didn't think about what I wanted to get out of it. I  joined because I was bored one afternoon and I had heard (via Ben Goldare's badscience book) that there were lots of people on twitter that were interested in setting right misreported science and stopping the UK government from cutting science funding. Turns out there were, they did an excellent job and they are a lovely bunch of folk too. I can't say that I contributed to that campaign. I supported and watched but I quickly realised that twitter could help me as a PhD student and that I had things to say, views about my own work and science, and that people were interested and engaged with me.

This was over 5 years ago and since then many others have realised the value social networks can serve as a tool for many end goals, including crowdfunding research. More people want to get involved and often 'social media' is thrown in as a buzz word on grant applications as a dissemination tool, but setting up an account and sporadically posting content isn't the best method of getting the most out of social media.

If you are just starting out then you might quickly realise - regardless of your social media medium of choice - that in order for it to be useful to you then you need some connections whether they are followers/likes/friends/commenters. A network isn't a network without people in it. But it is a mistake to judge solely on the numbers.  Quite often people quote simple numbers as measures of how successful they are online. There are a lot of spam accounts and you might build a huge network by discussing the in-and-outs of football but that follower number doesn't mean you have a large influence on what an audience thinks about science - although you might - but how can you measure that? As you see numbers can be a measure but looking for big numbers might mean you miss out on real benefits.

I'm not the only, or the first, person to think about this. I like this quote from Andrew Maynard, in his article about social media and science communication , "..every hour spent writing pieces like this is an hour lost to something else I should be doing. Which is why I’m constantly grappling with how I determine the worth of the videos I make and the articles I write."

There have been multiple attempts to try and track and rate online influence too , through tools like Klout. I haven't seen a tool that is truly insightful though and useful enough to use as a metric for tracking success.

So what do you measure?

The problem the belief that people should use a one size-fits-all model. This will not work. Firstly, all social media networks are different so a 'like' on facebook doesn't equal a follower on twitter. Interactions are subtle and hard to measure. You need to be familiar with the platform and how it works to get the most out of it and to understand what is worth measuring.

Really, you can only judge success based on your aims. Let's say your aim is to engage with the local community about their history.  If you get 25 people actively involved on a Facebook group sharing historical content that could equal success. The active sharing is key  here. If you had 300 likes on a page about local history with no active posting or sharing then that isn't really a success even though the stat of 300 likes is higher than 25.

As a PhD student your marker of success could be securing a post-doctoral position. Like all good research you need to determine what you want to do before you launch into it. Of course, unexpected excellent things can happen too. The biggest mistake is getting bogged down in the numbers.

If you have thought about and set your measures. Where do you go from there? 
How do you build a relevant network or audience?

In order for a social network to be useful a certain number of connections are needed. A certain level of activity is also needed. The network needs to be present and useful/of interest to those in it.  The point of being on twitter or other networks isn't necessarily about growing a network of hundreds and thousands of followers. If you are looking to grow your network what are the best, most meaningful ways of achieving it?
  • Search for your audience. See what your audience is posting about, where they are posting it and when they are online. 
  • Pick the right social network to use. A Facebook page usually isn't the answer. 
  • Match your content to your audience. Always have that in mind when you post. 
  • If appropriate, use hashtags that your target audience are using and respond to. Use the hashtags to engage in conversation with others. If regular chats happen about a topic of interest then join in (for a guide on twitter see here)
  • Make yourself available for comments (if you are looking for engagement)
  • Join in conversations.
  • Be present. 
  • If you are looking to start something with a community that you cannot find online then don't make social media your first point of call. Reach out to them in person and find if an online source might be useful. 
Grow purposefully not for the sake of growing your follower number.

I want to hear more about useful measures and ways of presenting them. If more people map what they are trying to do and how they get there (perhaps by blogging?) then others can follow, adjust and use for their own aims.

Useful information might emerge from this too - like an ideal number of people in a Facebook group for it to be active and informative. Too few people and there isn't enough momentum to keep the group interesting, too many and conversations aren't conversations they are just singular posts. Where is the tipping point?

High numbers of followers on twitter can be useful as it ensures that when you post at least a number of them will see it before it drops off the timeline - but the same thing can happen - over a certain number of followers means you get too many responses to read. Is that still useful or just time consuming?

If you are interested in conversations like this and interested in community structure and how they work then I would highly recommend reading Lou Woodley's Social in Silico blog.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Age of Discovery (How old are people when they do their best scientific research?)

Science is an extremely competitive field, getting research funding requires an excellent track record and researchers judge themselves against their peers. I wrote a blog post about the number of publications scientists are 'supposed' to have per year in order to be competitive on fellowships and grant applications a few years ago. I am surprised at the number of people that find that post by  searching for 'How many research papers should I have?' . It's a worry or thought most researchers have throughout their careers. There is of course no magic number and there's a need for a track record of quality publications vs a quantity of publications.

The ultimate accolade for a scientist is being awarded a Nobel Prize and I came across an interesting infographic about the age of Nobel Prize winners (when they completed their prize winning work) and also how that relates to the age at which they wrote their PhD dissertation. I have included it at the bottom of this post. Before 1905 2/3rds of Nobel Prize winners completed their 'winning' work before the age of 40. Post 1905 the average age is 48. I am surprised that the average dissertation age is 33. I thought it would be more in the mid-20s.

Of course the age of someone when they make a world changing discovery is also influenced by their peers, mentors and often by the technology and equipment available at the time.

If you want to hear from Nobel Prize winners about their career paths and hear their advice for current researchers. I've just discovered this resource of videos of Nobel Prize winners inspiring others through their stories. I'm looking forward to watching quite a few of these. This video is about choosing a research project but there are also videos on dealing with surprises and setbacks during your research career.

How should young scientists choose a research project?

The infographic about Nobel Prize winners is below. I always try and remember when reading lists and summaries though, especially when it comes to research,  that all projects and research pathways are unique and no two people take the same path. 

Source: Online-PHd-Programs.org

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Can Research Groups communicate as a collective rather than as individuals?

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I'm speaking to more and more research groups about how they can get online and share their work via social media.

I used some of the thoughts and diagrams from 'An introduction to social media for Scientists' published in PLOS Biology 2013 to illustrate some of the thoughts, barriers and journeys to engaging online in a short talk I gave..

I'm looking to speak to more people and read more case studies about how collective research groups have shared their science openly online - rather than the science being communicated by single individuals -  which I see to be more commonplace. Research rarely exists in isolation so I see more groups moving to this collated model.

Communicating as a group is, in theory, easier than as a single entity as there is potentially more to discuss and potentially less onus on one individual to provide all the narrative. That said, it is more difficult for people to communicate as a group as you are representing more voices and within a research environment everyone needs to be happy about what is being said. Relationships within research groups aren't always easy and that can mean that communication can stall. Communicating as a group also takes more input from people to organise and co-ordinate so although individuals might not have to contribute as much content, their time might be dedicated to the outputs in other ways.

For the receiver it may be difficult to engage with a group communication rather than an individual as it can lose the personal connection. Especially on twitter, group accounts can become static and exist only to announce outputs and information, rather than real engagement with an audience.

The use of social media by scientists has been criticised by some, including a Nobel Laureate,  as being 'self-promotion' and that, isn't 'science'. I was at that discussion and disagreed with it completely at the time but would communication by groups, rather than individuals avoid this? Or does it just prevent many of the benefits that can come from social media if used as an individual voice?

I am really interested in discussing this further and some ways people have used to overcome the barriers to communicating as a group.

Here's my prezi talk for those that are interested!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Academic productivity app review: Habit RPG

In my previous post I asked people to share which digital tools and apps they use to help them work faster (and smarter). Lots of them sounded useful and interesting so I thought I would try some of them out and write some short reviews.

@java7nerd recommended HabitRPG. The habit changing app that turns your life into a COMPUTER GAME. The aim of the app is to help you ditch bad habits and pick up good ones. The app sounded like great fun and perfect way to help me get more into a work/life balance (by that I mean not sitting at my desk when I should be at the gym). I signed up and tried it out.

The app is FREE (whoop), easy to use and fun to look at. It takes some setting up as you decide what tasks you want to set where (and decide on which points to reward yourself).

The app works by assigning points for tasks which accumulate until you earn enough for a reward. Points do get taken away for bad habits though....

As you can see on this list you can include anything you like. I thought this app would be particularly useful for breaking up thesis writing.. as a long, boring, never ending monotonous task thesis writing can be broken up into chunks (big ones, little ones, and daily ones) and completing those is incredibly rewarding. Using this app you could track your progress and reward yourself with an enjoyable activity (and/or reminding yourself to go OUTSIDE/phone the friends you had in the days before thesis writing started).

I set my app up but I was never really sure of the difference between habits, dailies and to-dos - but I put tasks where I thought they should be and away I went ticking off my good (and bad) habits.

Unfortunately, very quickly I realised that the app wouldn't really work for me.

The main problem I have with the app doesn't have anything to do with the app at all. It's to do with me. I lie. I lie to apps to make them do what I want. I don't tell the app about my bad habits and sometimes I say that I have done things that I haven't. I also work on a lot of varied projects and my daily habits vary (I couldn't be described as someone with a 'routine'). So, I quickly gave up updating the app and then when I logged back in this happened...


I think this app is a great idea and would be really useful for someone taking on a big task (like writing a thesis or studying for exams). Unfortunately it didn't really work out for me though.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Which digital tools do you use to make your life easier?

I've been thinking this week about all the apps, tools and plug-ins that I use to make my digital life easier. I use a variety of tools to catch up with digital conversations, save things for later and to make sure I don't miss blogposts.  I also use them to manage my own digital footprint so I can update blogs and twitter when I am away from my desk and laptop.

There are lots of options out there so I want to collect a round up of what people use and for what. I'm particularly interested in hearing from researchers.

98% of the tools I use are free and I am reluctant to pay for something new without a really good review first.

New tools are launched on a what seems like daily basis and older apps and tools get changed, removed and updated frequently. Here's a run down of what I use (and for what). I would be really interested to hear from others about what they use and how it makes your life easier!

- Twitter - I use twitter.com from my desktop and laptop and the twitter app from my phone. I don't schedule tweets. I use favourites and lists to make sure I don't miss tweets from people that I am interested in and save posts and links to read at a later time (although I very rarely go back and read things that I have favourited). I have started to look at using tweetdeck as an easier way of managing multiple twitter accounts. I have also dabbled in hootsuite but to be honest I found it made my life more difficult rather than easier (sometimes too many options is a bad thing).

- Storify - really useful for capturing twitter conversations and for sharing them with others. Super useful for capturing live tweets as they happen at conferences.

- Facebook - I just use the facebook app on my phone. I mostly use facebook for personal posts but I do manage a few pages and do that via the pages app.

- Updating my blogs - I use blogger and wordpress. I use their apps so I can update on the go. I find both apps a little tricky to use from my ipad and iphone as writing isn't easy and editing is even more difficult. They are both useful for uploading photos direct to a blog from my phone and jotting down notes which I can then turn into a blog post at a later date.

- ifft - if this then that. A brilliant tool to automate your online activity. I used ifft to automatically collate guest pictures from my wedding! I saw someone instagraming something on the day and felt a little bit smug knowing that it would be waiting for my on my flickr account to look at the following day!

- Reading Blogs - I use bloglovin on my ipad. I read a mix of blogs from cooking, design, gardening, beauty (yup) and science blogs. I like the simple design of bloglovin so I can get to the content I want to read easily. I've tried other apps but find that nicer designs can detract from finding the content I want, quickly.

- Capturing interesting stuff and writing notes - I use evernote. I have a plugin for Chrome so I can screenshot and save pages from my desktop and laptop. I also have Everclip and Evernote on my iphone/ipad. You do need to pay for these but they are totally worth it. I am awful at categorising things properly so the search option within my saved clippings and notes in evernote is a godsend.

- File sharing/saving - I use dropbox (but it is full and I don't want to pay for storage). I use google drive to share and back up files I am working on (if they are in a format not suitable for evernote). I am terrible at backing up and deleting things so my laptop, phone and ipad all have full storage (help!)

Please share what you use, for what and how you use it. I expect this page to evolve and keep updating as I will undoubtedly start using new tools and apps as I change how I navigate online and also as new ones appear!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

How to help someone that is writing up their thesis

Writing a thesis is a lonely and it can be a very stressful time. I found it extremely difficult to keep up with friends and family. Holding normal, conversations that lasted longer than two sentences without my mind drifting away to thesis related thoughts was also a challenge.

Quite a few of my close friends have gone through their thesis too and I thought it might be useful for those that haven't experienced the joys, highs and lows of thesis writing how they can help support those that are writing up.

A few things that you can do to help...

See if they would like to go out for food or a walk but don't get annoyed if all the said person does is talk about their thesis. Getting writers away from their computer can be a welcome distraction.

Send them some nice smelly soaps/shampoo - I stopped all shopping when writing up

You could also send fruit and healthy snacks. Confession time. I once spent a weekend at my desk writing up and ate all of my desk mates food because it was within arms length. He wasn't happy. His nickname for me is now 'the seagull'.

Try not to get annoyed if they are a bit snappy or don't reply to emails/requests - when you are writing up your mind works in strange ways

If you are planning something tell them where they need to be/when and what they need to do. Don't ask them a lot of questions about availability and dates as they will probably get confused. Trying to plan when you are immersed in a thesis is a challenge.

Be patient and supportive. They will stop writing their thesis (and hopefully pass) but thesis writing can last for months/years. It isn't like writing up a dissertation as part of an undergraduate or masters course.

A few things that might be best avoided..

Don't keep asking what they are doing post-thesis (especially if they don't know)

Don't say 'have you not finished that yet?'

Don't compare their thesis to your undergraduate project..

If you are the thesis writer...

Try not to get stressed when people can't understand the situation.

Get outside every once in a while (it helps)

Try and speak to your friends and family every once in a while

Try and get a hobby that doesn't take up too much time but does give you some escapism

Watch cat videos on youtube (and/or ASMR ones - also I found watching 10 minute episodes of Charlie and Lola on iplayer also helped!) Here are a few more suggestions for current thesis writers!

If anyone has any other tips or stories to share please do! 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Academic Blogging - Getting started

Looking to share your research project online via a blog or social media but not sure where to start?

I often get asked how you blog. So here's a post with some hints, tips and how to get started with a blog.

I think blogging can be an extremely useful tool but it isn't for everyone, it is hard work and can be extremely difficult to do well. There are also risks involved and it usually isn't the best way of engaging with the public.

Researchers can blog for a number of reasons. It could be to share work with a wider audience or to share it with peers and there's plenty of folk (myself included) that blog about working as a researcher in a general sense. These posts are mostly read by other researchers. I found blogging through my PhD quite therapeutic and it helped me make a few new friends along the way.

I've included lots of links in this post to resources elsewhere on the web. I'm definitely not the first person to post about blogging so I have included lots of links to other tools and resources. I will continually update this post with links so please post things you have found useful in the comments!

Things to consider

Before getting started familiarise yourself with other blogs and work out what you like, don't like and how you want your blog to look (use google to search for blogs that cover your area of interest). There's usually a reason why popular blogs are popular.. look at the tools they use and the way they are structured (but don't steal!)

Think about the audience you want to reach with your blog and tailor your design accordingly.

Don't create anything too fancy. You want a platform that can be accessed via a computer, laptop and via mobile and tablet devices. Most people read things via social networks via phones and tablets. According to twitter 76% of people access twitter via their mobiles. 

Blogging is an investment of time and effort and it can be worthwhile but you need to make sure it's the right move for you. Will you have regular content, an audience and be able to sustain writing quality posts over a period of time?

Check out any guidelines on blogging from your institution. There may be someone that can help support you and your blog and always remember to let people know you are going to be blogging if the blog is going to contain details about your research. So...

Getting started - choosing a blog platform

I use blogger because it is super easy. I wanted something where I could start posting content immediately and without too many options but with some custom features. I didn't want to spend time learning to write new code or how to build a website from scratch (although I have now started to learn that!). It isn't as professional as other platforms but it works for me as I wanted to focus on the content.

If you want more ownership and control over how your website looks then you might want to use Wordpress. You can use a template of Wordpress (wordpress.com) or construct your own website from scratch (wordpress.org). My guess is if you are reading this post then you are probably looking for a simple platform.

There's also Tumblr where you have less control over the design and look. If you want to compare all three options then this website has already done that for you.

The platforms are all constantly changing and evolving so what works now might change in a months time.

The most important thing to consider with design is to make the text in your blog readable so a simple design and layout works best. There are some more thoughts on blog design here.

You can swap blogs between platforms at a later date.

You might also want to register your own URL (e.g. www.heatherisawesome.com - which is an actual website). It's easy to do and costs a minimal amount. It looks more professional but I never bothered making a custom URL for this blog.

Alternatively you could pitch a blog idea to a blog network. These bring different blogs linked by a theme together. There are lots of them (some by subject area) and can be a great way of reaching an audience by building on an existing platform. They all work differently and may have different rules regarding posts. I would recommend seeing if there are any in your area and looking at what they do. The other advantage to blogging on a network is that they may have a blog editor that can help you improve your posts rather than just working on your own. I blogged on a network for a while it was fun but I decided I wanted more freedom.

My advice would be. Start with a simple layout. Concentrate on the content and you can always build more custom options in at a later date and that leads me swiftly on to...


I find it's easiest to post content about the things that I am working on. Seeking and creating fresh new content in addition to a full time job can be difficult so my blog links with my job which I really enjoy. Content needs to be.. relevant and of interest to others, something you have credibility to discuss and are passionate about and it really needs to serve a purpose...

You need to know why you are investing time in sharing things via a blog otherwise you can lose motivation, lose momentum and the blog can stop.

Be realistic about how often you can post. In an ideal world I think one to two posts a week is a good rule to keep people coming to your blog. However, that can be really difficult to achieve and very time consuming.

Be wary of sharing details of your research work if you are planning on publishing it at a later date. That said I think you can generate real interest from readers on the web by talking about how you work and what research it is you are doing. Of course if you do publish a paper then BLOG IT (but again, be careful of image rights as these can be held by the publisher even if you produced the image. If you are unsure- check).

If you are a PhD student or post-doc make sure you let your supervisor know that you are blogging if you are using information from your work. I know many people blog anon BUT they avoid using anything that could link them to their place of work (and sometimes even avoid their research area).

Link content to other sources and make sure you credit others on the web if their work inspires you .. also seek permission to reuse photographs, images and you find on the web. Don't just stick them on your website. There are some that are free to use here's an overview of using photos and images here.

USE PHOTOGRAPHS/IMAGES/DIAGRAMS if you can. It just makes things look nicer. Even better.. create your own images and diagrams Errant Science has some awesome creations! If you are unsure where an image on the web has come from this is a handy tool that tracks it back to the original source.

Develop your writing by getting others to proof read your blog. If they are your friends you will probably get a limited about of feedback but they might spot some typo's for you!

When I you post something always think about who you are writing for because every blog has a...


This can be tricky but it is important. Think about who you want to contact about your work. If that is other academics - great! Or the public... more difficult but still great. Tailor your content and posts accordingly and make sure you are publicising your blog (you do need to do this) in the right places to reach the audience you want to. Have your audience in mind when you write your blog. Even better get someone from your target audience to read your posts before publishing them.

To reach your audience you need to find where they are on the web, that could be via twitter (I've written a getting started guide), facebook, LinkedIN, reddit, pinterest.. or any number of social networks. You might not need to use all of the networks. Top tip. I think twitter is the most useful BUT make sure you learn how to use it properly.

Do some research, set up appropriate accounts linked to your blog and make sure you let people know about your blog. If you can reach people with wide networks (e.g. a society you work with) then let them know and they can help you share your content. Without sharing your writing then it will be difficult for people to find the content.

You could also ask an established blogger if they would be happy with you writing a guest post on their site. It's best to do this after you have written a few posts so they can refer back to that in order to see if your content and style fits with their blog. Interact with other blogs through the comment sections too. Don't just continually post 'HI I WROTE A BLOG'. Participate in the online community by being helpful to others.

Use the 'labels', 'keywords' sections on your blog to help search engines find your posts. You can use adwords to help you determine which keywords are the best to use.

In order to decide on an audience you might want to think about WHY you are blogging.  I know my audience is mostly people who are early career researchers HOWEVER I also know my blog does reach a public audience and more senior academics and I know this because of...

Tracking and metrics 

There are LOADS of different tools you can use to track who is visiting your site and for how long. The jury is still out on the best way to track the impact of blogs and the reach of posts.

They can be useful to see how many people are accessing your content and where they are finding your website. Here's some explanations of the terms used on tracking and metrics websites.

Tracking keywords too as to how people find your blog can also be interesting but you can spend lots of time getting bogged down in checking stats and metrics. Different websites will report slightly different numbers visitors and stats for various reasons. It's a confusing landscape so the best advice would be to use a couple of different tracking sites just to make sure.

Your outcomes might not be to reach 10000000 people with your blog but they might be to involve others in your research project which leads me on neatly to....

Being available

Make sure you have an easy way on your blog for people to get in touch or connect with other networks.e.g. a CONTACT ME HERE tab or 'gadget' in blogger (these are found under the layout options).

If this all sounds like too much (I used to spend at least 3 hours or so a week on my blog) then you might want to check out some...

Alternatives to blogging regularly 

You could always write a guest post for another blogger.. (they should have details of how to get in touch with them via their blog page).

Or pitch an article for The Conversation (online platform written by academics)

Check out these blogs for inspiration: 

Ed Yong's 'It's Not Exactly Rocket Science' - note he is a professional science writer but he posts his picks of the best science blogs each week .. a great place to find more blog inspiration.

Robert Hooke's London - beautiful research blog

The Thesis Whisperer - excellent PhD focused blog

Scicurious - moved from anonymous blogger to non anon blogger

Biochembelle - blogging about life as a post-doc

Handy tools for bloggers...

I use evernote for everything..to collate ideas, remember useful websites and to create blog posts but here are some other tools that might be useful - Blogging tools 

Blogging books 

There are books about blogging. I've never read one but perhaps I should have. I would be interested to know if anyone has found a book useful or if anyone has any further hints, tips and ideas to share.

Please note - I'm not responsible for any content on pages I am linking to. No-one asked me to link to their page or paid me to include their blog on this post. There is advice all over the web (business blogs, beauty blogs) and I wanted to provide a resource to further information for those that are starting a blog.

Please let me know if any of the links aren't useful or if you have any other useful ones to suggest please do! Don't spend money on producing a blog at first and be wary of any blog posts that try to sell you services!