Saturday, June 14, 2014

Academia and social media

A piece I wrote for the University of Liverpool website

The original is here:

“Last time I looked, I wasn’t Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has 42 million followers on Twitter, for the very simple reason that people are much more interested in the lifestyles of celebrities than the work of obscure scientists.
A few months ago, I published a paper reporting on a study exploring the origins of mental health problems, a paper that was also reported upon in the BBC online news magazine. I was fortunate, in the first day, over 500,000 read the online BBC story. That story contained a simple hypertext link to the original paper, which was freely available on an open-access basis, but only 500 people accessed the original. 500 visits was a very decent figure, but it’s sobering that 99.9% of people relied purely on the journalists’ account of our research.
Reaching the public
I learned from this that, whether we like it or not, we cannot merely rely on publishing in peer-review journals (even open-access journals) to reach the public with our work. We need journalists, the mainstream media and social media.
University academics – and perhaps especially academics working in healthcare – have a responsibility to interpret research, to contextualise research, and to offer commentary and even advice based on that expert research analysis. And I believe we have a responsibility to explain these issues in ways that are accessible to the general public.
“When scientific language tends to confuse or obfuscate issues, I believe we should try to offer clarity. I believe that academics should actively engage in public discussion of the implications of our work”
When scientific language tends to confuse or obfuscate issues, I believe we should try to offer clarity. I believe that academics should actively engage in public discussion of the implications of our work.
So I think we should embrace both mainstream journalism and social media. Used well, the media can be routes to positive change. I havewritten in scientific journals about the inappropriateness of psychiatric diagnosis. Clearly, this work is more than merely scientific, I and my colleagues would like our academic activity to influence policy.
We have, therefore, actively tried to engage in both journalists and the general public in a wider debate. I think, with respect to diagnosis, we’ve had some success; I was delighted when the document at the heart of this issue was described as being “mired in controversy” in a ‘Simpsons’ episode. My colleague, Eleanor Longden, has notched up over 2.5 million views of her TED talk on similar issues.
But… popularity is a double-edged sword. I recently took the opportunity to comment on the media’s unpleasant tendency to poke their noses into private grief, by writing about the media coverage of a major tragedy and subsequently appearing on TV, where I gently chided the journalists for their prurience. So far so good, except that it resulted in a flurry of comments that seemed to have much more to do with conspiracy theories than compassionate care of people in emotional distress.
Social media
And any presence on social media seems to attract trolls – rebarbative or even abusive messages, often sent within seconds of your initial activity. Perhaps because of the topics I discuss – such as psychological torturepsychiatric diagnosis, or psychological therapies – I have received what could charitably be described as a rich and varied set of comments.
So does that lead to any advice about the role of social media in academia? Well, I am currently preparing a MOOC (an open-access, free, online university course) and writing books for a general audience, all of which I’ll try to promulgate via social media.
So it hasn’t put me off.”


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