How Twitter emerged as a powerful research communication medium for Chinese Scholars
What’s behind this unexpected phenomenon and how one can use it to their advantage
Author: Sunaina Singh
By enabling scholars to rapidly and directly disseminate their research to a wide audience, even beyond the academic community, social media has transformed scholarly communication in many ways. Of the popular social media platforms, Twitter stands out in its usefulness in different facets of higher education, including teaching, receiving the latest updates in a field of study, increasing academic citations, and sharing opinions on current events.
For China scholars in particular, Twitter offers the opportunity to communicate with a diverse spectrum of sources of specialist and generalist knowledge of China, including certain intellectuals and activists based in mainland China (who override the censorship placed on Twitter), besides Chinese media like Xinhua and People’s Daily and Western media covering China issues. Academic journals like The China Quarterly, as well as relevant academic departments and institutes, also have a presence on Twitter. Moreover, upwards of 300 China studies scholars, spanning all fields and career stages, are active on Twitter (Sullivan, 2016).
In an interesting paper, Jonathan Sullivan of the University of Nottingham systematically examined how China scholars are adopting Twitter for a number of professional reasons like networking with other researchers in their field of work, increasing research visibility, staying up-to-date on developments in their study domain, and building an online presence for themselves. He uncovered some valuable takeaways in the process, which will be discussed in this article.
China scholars’ use and views of Twitter
In his study, Sullivan surveyed the experiences and perceptions of a fraction of China scholars who use Twitter. Half of the respondents of the survey reported using Twitter for more than two years, and 15% had less than a year’s experience. Nearly 44% reported using Twitter for up to an hour every day. Most of the scholars stated that they use Twitter to collect information and stay abreast of current events. About 75% scholars said they share links and related materials, publicize their own activities, and connect with other China scholars. Two-thirds revealed they use Twitter to connect with China-focused professionals in other sectors. Over half the respondents stated that Twitter had helped them become much better informed. While 42% of the surveyed scholars felt that Twitter had helped them expand their academic and professional networks considerably, 40% thought it had not added value to their academic reputations at all.
Several respondents agreed that Twitter widened information access and exposed them to new ideas and teaching materials. Positive effects reported by some scholars included achieving a wider network than would be possible in the physical world, the conception of novel ideas for research, and staying up to date with the latest developments in their field. A few negative points noted by the respondents about Twitter use were distraction, reduced productivity, and information overload.
The conflict between the “rapid-response Twitter commentary” versus the traditionally slow pace of scholarly practice was also voiced by certain respondents. Some scholars stated that their peers perceived Twitter as a waste of time or a platform for blatant self-promotion. Many respondents expressed apprehensions and reluctance to openly discuss sensitive issues about China because of possible repercussions on their access to the country or collaborators residing therein.
Why should Early Career Researchers (ECRs) use Twitter in 2020?
Twitter offers real-time interaction, a sense of closeness, and short response times. In addition, discoverability, enabled by the use of hashtags, makes it easy to rapidly find and share content and increase visibility. The informal nature of communication helps soften communication barriers with senior researchers, whom junior scholars might otherwise be hesitant to reach out to in person. Another key feature of Twitter is the use of multiple captivating content formats like infographics and videos, which attract interest and hold public attention, as well as interactive features like polls, which engage audiences actively.
Promoting one’s research on Twitter has been found to positively correlate with higher citation counts. According to one study, articles tweeted about received thrice as many citations as those that were not tweeted about. In his article, Sullivan cites several studies highlighting Twitter as an alternative measure of research impact and professional competence. Metrics based on social media forums like Twitter provide new ways to evaluate the significance and reach of a research output, complementing traditional citation metrics. Quantifying activity such as retweets and mentions of scholarly articles might help build a more complete picture of a researcher’s work and social influence.
Twitter also makes it easy to have intra-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary exchanges with scholars. In addition, Twitter is being used to comment upon academic practices and culture, seek and share advice, deliberate on teaching practices, and discuss and debate issues in real-time. Some scholars go as far as saying that opting out of social media can be equated with opting out of email in the 1990s.
How can China scholars benefit from Twitter?
Some tips to engage productively on Twitter include sharing interesting articles and book reviews related to topical issues and participating in Twitter discussions with relevant hashtags, e.g., #PhDChat or #AcademicTwitter. Using and following hashtags like #ChinaStudies and #ChinaScholars would be a useful way to identify other researchers from the field and forge academically meaningful connections. China scholars may have expertise in niche areas, and by creating and promoting their distinct profiles (“branding,” so to speak), they can harness Twitter’s potential for boosting visibility and recognition.
The Story of Seagh Kehoe
An interesting story that reinforces the importance of China scholars to utilize Twitter is that of Seagh Kehoe, Sullivan’s student, whose area of interest is Tibetan studies. Kehoe chanced upon a second-hand copy of an obscure book, titled ‘Sue in Tibet’. Intrigued by what appeared to be the first piece of Western children’s literature set in Tibet, they posted a picture of the book on Twitter. Almost instantly, they were contacted by Samanthi Dissanayake, the Asia editor for the BBC News website, regarding the possibility of an article based on the book. Thus began Kehoe’s quest into the life and background of the book’s author, Dorris Shelton Still, with Twitter playing a huge role in locating Dorris’s family and gleaning insights into her life and experiences in Tibet. The accidental discovery of an American woman’s perspectives of life in Tibet in the early 1900s and the wise decision of sharing it on Twitter sparked interest in the right places. Kehoe ended up being interviewed on BBC’s Newshour, and the story also featured in a series by The New York Times, thanks to the “the engine of creativity that is Twitter,” tweeted Dissanayake. This media exposure was a bonus for Kehoe, who unwittingly displayed their ability to engage audiences beyond their field of study, all the way to the general public.
Tweeting is an excellent way to demonstrate engagement with current affairs and reach out to journalists for promotion and garnering public attention. Sometimes, as in Kehoe’s case, journalists may contact a researcher upon spotting a social media post with potential for an interesting story. In fact, Sullivan notes that by trawling Twitter, China correspondents often identify scholars to interview. Media pieces resulting from these interactions can help establish useful connections and build professional reputation. Journalists even advise China scholars to use Twitter in order to increase their online presence and media impact. Like the rediscovery of ‘Sue in Tibet’, many more stories remain to be unraveled, shared, and discussed widely.
Constraints faced by China Scholars
Some scholars felt that their superiors did not consider Twitter use favorable in the study environment.
While many China scholars would be interested to take part in open discussions related to their field of study, most express inhibitions to do so. Access to domestic social media platforms such as Sina Weibo is an option for scholars residing in China, these sites are heavily monitored, preventing unrestricted and uncensored exchange of information.
Another constraint faced by Twitter users in general is the 280-character limit for a tweet. This forces scholars to distil their findings into a pithy and more accessible format. Therefore, expressing results as concisely as possible is a skill that early career scholars need to fine-tune.
Using social media as an academic increases opportunities for collaboration and engagement, and several Western universities now place considerable emphasis on impact and engagement in higher education. However, ECRs are not typically trained to build this ability. Thus, experience and skill in optimizing Twitter use are focus areas for young scholars.
Besides research, teaching, and administration, competence in handling digital media is increasingly being encouraged by institutions. Twitter has been found to benefit China scholars hoping to expand their external engagement profile, particularly by opening possibilities for media engagement.
China scholars who are social media savvy will be at an advantage in the competitive job market. In fact, as demonstrated by the story of Seagh Kehoe, China scholars can benefit tremendously from such active and sustained networking with various stakeholders.
In 2020, researchers are now faced with travel restrictions and a lack of in-person symposia and conferences, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this landscape, the role of Twitter in helping China scholars connect and network is probably more important than ever.
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