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Twitter, ResearchGate and other websites jostle for the title of go-to social network for researchers, but when faculty members go online to discuss their peers’ work, many of them turn to Twitter.

That’s one takeaway from Richard Van Noorden’s study of social media use in higher education, published last week in the science journal Nature. Van Noorden, senior reporter for the journal, surveyed 3,509 scholars worldwide this summer about their online habits, and his results suggest many researchers only use the social networks designed specifically for academics to establish a presence, and not much else.

Nearly half, or 1,589, of Van Noorden’s survey respondents named ResearchGate their most frequented social network, but when asked specifically about their use, two-thirds of the scholars said they registered “in case someone wishes to contact me about my research.” Scholars who regularly visited and LinkedIn reported similar habits.

Survey respondents could pick as many of the 16 answer choices as they wanted (or write in their own), and their answers reveal many of the other reasons why scholars signed up for the sites: ResearchGate to locate peers, to post work and LinkedIn to search for jobs. But in all three cases -- and for the research paper management software Mendeley -- fewer than 10 percent of respondents said they use the networks for “actively discussing my research.”

Although only about one-fifth of its users said they use the site for research discussions, Twitter outscored the other social and professional networks. The microblogging site also beat out the competition among the proportions of users who comment on research, follow discussions, post their own work and share links to their peers’ research.

For some of the most avid social network users, a site designed specifically with researchers in mind can even be counterproductive.

“When you build technology for a specific function, it’s hard for it to get into the workflow or the daily practice of researchers and teachers,” said Joshua M. Rosenberg, a graduate student in educational psychology and technology at Michigan State University. Twitter, he said, is in comparison “very adaptable, and it lets people repurpose it to suit whatever their need is.”

Rosenberg maintains a presence on professional networks as well, but said he felt “it’s a lot of effort to keep them up to date, and each of them speaks to a different audience.”

Twitter users are still in the minority, however. According to the survey, only about 1 in every 10 respondents in science and engineering disciplines and 2 in 10 in the social sciences, arts and humanities said they are active on the site, compared to nearly half and one-third, respectively, who said the same about ResearchGate.

For both groups, there were more than twice as many active Facebook users, even though 56 percent of regular visitors said they do not use the social network for professional purposes. (“I do share [research] on Facebook,” Rosenberg said. “I also share cat pictures.”) Meanwhile, the academic search engine Google Scholar drew the most active users.

“I’m a young scholar -- I’m just a third-year Ph.D. student -- but I feel like making people aware of what you’re doing is an ongoing challenge,” Rosenberg said. “A lot of what research is is kind of boring, esoteric. It’s not clear why you’d spend 40 hours working on a conference paper. I think you have to keep posting, keep sharing what’s going on.”

Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State who specializes in social media use, said users who have relied on Twitter for conversations about research may be looking for the same opportunities across multiple social networks. Rosenberg’s strategy, in other words, may not be a bad idea for scholars at the outset of their careers.

“If I have a certain impact on Google Scholar and a certain impact in traditional databases and on Twitter, isn’t that all part of how we make the case that our work is impacting others?” Greenhow said. “Scholars preparing to be scholars today need to have a more expansive view of how they track their impact.”

Greenhow said she would have liked to have seen a breakdown of the results based on age or role, which she said could indicate if younger scholars or particular groups of researchers are behind most of the social media use. Based on her own research, Greenhow said many researchers establish a presence online to take control of their reputations. "I think scholars are going to need to take an interest in how they are presented online and the impressions that they are making," she said.

In some cases, academic social networks have been limited by restrictions placed on the research. Last year, for example, publisher Elsevier sent takedown notices for almost 3,000 articles on The news "sent a negative tone," said Rosenberg, although he added it hasn't stopped him from sharing copyrighted work.

“I think you have to situate that concern within an overarching debate in higher education on transparency in sharing your research, the process and data,” Greenhow said. “As our conversations move in the directions of transparency, accessibility and democratization of knowledge, those concerns may be alleviated over time as norms shift.”

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