Following on from my previous post, which summarised some of the scholarly work on the relationships between academia, social media, and mental health, in this post I’d like to look a little more at how emerging academics like myself might use social media in the research workflow. I’ll also use illustrative examples from my own experiences to highlight some of the pros and cons of social media to a PhD student with a mental illness, in order to address the questions: What are some of the challenges to inclusivity for PHD students with a mental illness? And how do social media intersect with this?
Social media and research
‘Social media are used at all points of the research cycle, from identifying research opportunities to disseminating research results.’ Nández and Borrego (2013)
As the above quotation makes clear, social media are used broadly by researchers, at all stages of the research cycle. Here I’ll highlight six areas of the research workflow which tally most closely with my own experiences.
Accessibility of sources is obviously crucial to research. Studies on information seeking and libraries science suggest that this access is being increasingly strengthened as publishers invest in digital solutions. According to Tenopir et al, e-journals are now the most common source for reading articles – with “even 42% of historians” using them most days, according to one paper. The reader must interpret that quotation as they will!
Likewise, the growth in digital archive collections (such as that of the International Bomber Command Centre), and in digitised object collections facilitated by 3D recording technologies (particularly where these are open-source) enhances accessibility of cultural heritage, and encourages a more inclusive mode of collaboration between those who study it.
E-journals and digital archives – where the interaction can be one-way – might not be considered truly social media (whose defining feature is two-way communication between peers), but with e-reading platforms now facilitating mark-up directly through the publisher’s website, and learning technologies such as Talis Elevate encouraging collaboration with others at the point of reading sources, I think an argument can be made for interaction with e-content as a social media activity.
Networking and collaboration
Nandez and Borrego found in their 2013 study that researchers signing up to academic social media platform Academia.edu did so to connect with other researchers in 67% of cases. This is supported by Rowlands et al in relation to a broader range of social media platforms, the most popular of which were those to facilitate collaborative authoring, conferencing, and scheduling meetings – i.e. tools to allow researchers to connect with one another.
But while Rowlands observes that “social media tools allow [researchers] to listen to ‘different voices’”, the drawbacks of having a limited social media presence, of working in a niche field, and the risks of operating in what we might call an academic echo chamber also need to be considered. Despite the statistics quoted in my previous post about the level of social media use among arts and humanities researchers, my impression of the PhD community on Twitter, at least, is that researchers engaged with that platform predominantly align with STEM subjects. As a history and heritage researcher, I sometimes feel in a minority.
To relate this to my own experiences of inclusivity: The recently new phenomenon of the Twitter conference is one of the things that inspired me to investigate my life as an anxious, social media active researcher. As I find it challenging to attend large social events, particularly where they involve a lot of travelling, Twitter conferences like that organised in 2017 by Institute of Conservation member Pieta Greaves (search on Twitter for #IconTC, but also #PresTC and #PATC for other examples) allow me to engage specifically with scholars and research in my fields of interest at reduced anxiety levels, and reduced cost. The permanence of material means that I can re-visit it at a pace that suits my state of health, and I find that I feel more confident approaching people that I consider ‘experts’, or more senior researchers, online than I would in person.
Similarly, efforts by organisations or groups (such as the University of Lincoln’s Doctoral School and most recently the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) to set up webinars, recordings, or live video streams of content such as conferences, CPD or professional forums, are valuable in enabling me to participate in development opportunities, or to be heard alongside my peers.
Although the traditional dissemination pathways of journals, conferences and so on remain valuable to academics, social media are expanding as complementary channels according to Rowlands et al. Rowlands and others, though, point to some implications and challenges arising from these alternative forms of dissemination, including the knock-on effects that might be felt by publishers or librarians from social media channels being arguably less formal and, for example, less easily archivable.
From a personal point of view, though, I find that I want to share my work online, and I want to use that to invite feedback and collaboration, but also that I have some unanswered questions. If I chat with other researchers at a conference the interaction is transient; if I do so online there is a permanence, and a lack of control over how my words and ideas are archived or shared, which makes me uncomfortable about what – and to what level – I disseminate works in progress especially. I feel that I don’t understand issues of intellectual property enough, as they apply to social media, to have confidence in making my work more visible in the public sphere.
In sharing their own experiences of social media use as PhD students, Liz Bennett and Sue Folley have written that a student’s digital identity “is entwined with their potential to gain employment”. This is supported by Boté, in a recently published book on library practice for graduate students, and by Nandez and Borrego, who found that a “higher proportion of students [and] postdocs used the service [Academia.edu]” to disseminate their curriculum vitae, compared to established academics.
Building and maintaining a digital reputation is seen as important in developing employability, and while Van Zyl points to the benefits of social networking in doing this (for example, public recognition and reward for contributions through likes and shares), Bennett and Folley highlight the hybridised nature of their digital identities – part student, part teaching professional / part novice, part expert – and how this left them feeling conflicted about what content to share online. As an Associate Lecturer in my subject area, as well as a PhD student, this heightened sense of having the ‘right’ digital identity is certainly something I can empathise with.
Even though they don’t focus on their mental wellbeing specifically, the work of Bennett and Folley is rich with key words relating to mental health issues – anxiety, stress, fear, imposter syndrome, and so on – suggesting that even where a mental health problem has not been diagnosed, the sensations can nevertheless be part of the PhD student experience.
While psychiatrists are conflicted about whether social media use increases or decreases isolation, some recent studies have found that reaching out online leads to “feelings of group belonging” among those with mental illness. And Inger Mewburn, an authority on the research student experience, advocates for ‘troubles talk’ (communication exchanges “where one or more people gather to tell stories of situations that have caused some kind of discomfort or disruption”) as being effective in helping “PhD students to negotiate and manage the precarious process of ‘becoming academic’”.
Likewise, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer – although writing in 2000, before the advent of many social media platforms – point to the most successful educational experiences arising from connecting with others socially, as well as cognitively. Although, according to Leon and Pigg (2011) students can “struggle with the tension” between using social media for ‘pleasure’ and ‘work’, this evidence perhaps suggests defining our boundaries more fluidly, and recognising the palliative value of talking about things other than our PhDs. Let’s be honest: how many of us start conversations at PGR networking events with “So what are you studying?” rather than “Have you travelled far today?” or even good old “How do you do?”? Perhaps we should be more mindful.
In my own experience, interacting with others on Twitter particularly (e.g. following and contributing to the hashtags #AcademicChatter and #PhDChat) has brought me into contact with others with whom to share my triumphant, and not-so-triumphant moments, and has allowed me to extend the reach of my profile as a researcher beyond the confines of the University. Something which is otherwise a challenge, given my mental health triggers and symptoms.
While this post has focused on the potential for inclusivity afforded by social media, and the mostly positive impacts that I have felt from its role in my own PhD research, there are nevertheless barriers to using social media for enhanced inclusivity that must also be considered. My third, and final post will draw out a few of these, before suggesting what we might do to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental health difficulties.