Feature Article – The Use of Social Media in Research

Social media are computer-mediated technologies that have been reshaping the form of social interaction in the world. Their use penetrates all aspects of our lives, in terms of the creation and sharing of information and ideas. This feature article introduces the use of social media in research.

Uses of social media in research

There are diverse uses for social media in research. General social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are commonly used for collecting data. For instance, the number of posts/tweets on a particular topic at a given time may indicate people’s concerns and opinions on the topic. Trends data can be used to identify public awareness of an issue — for example, Google Trends was used to assess human behaviour and predict the spread of flu through communities (Young, Rivers, & Lewis, 2014). Also, visual platforms such as YouTube and Instagram can be used to share behind-the-scenes photos of the methods or technology used, such as a 3D printer mid-print or unidentifiable experimental equipment (Reeve & Partridge, 2017).

In addition, academically-focused social media have also gained popularity and appreciation among researchers. The major ones include Academia.edu and ResearchGate, which connect academics with their fellow researchers and external institutions, and allow them to access the latest papers in their disciplines (Noorden, 2014). Also, online journal clubs can be developed into wide community support networks through social platforms. Members can sign up to read or propose a paper, and then discuss it with fellow researchers via social media such as Skype.

Benefits for researchers

Social media present new possibilities for researchers in three main aspects: data collection and analysis, network building and publicity for their work. First, tracking digital data on social platforms is especially useful for researchers in fields such as psychology, health and medicine (Young, Rivers, & Lewis, 2014). Researchers are able to access diverse groups of people, including sub-groups (e.g. the disabled) who may be potential participants in research studies (Phillips, 2011). Therefore, a large sample can be obtained at a relatively low cost within a short period (Bright, Margetts, Hale, & Yasseri, 2014). As regards data analysis, online tools such as Google Analytics may be helpful.

Second, the researchers’ participation in social media (e.g. by reading and writing blogs) enables them to reach a wider audience and engage in interactive problem solving. As suggested by Kjellberg, Haider and Sundin (2016), a blog acts as an interface between the university, the research field, the general public and private life. Blogging and microblogging are thus able to reach the intended audience in the academic community. Social media platforms such as Friendfeed and LinkedIn also assist in building collaborative networks (Reeve & Partridge, 2017).

Third, academics can promote their research through the social media by sharing news and information about research studies. Duque (2016) reported a case study of a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto who studied the impact of air pollution on cyclists’ behaviour and posted tweets inviting participation in a survey. This caught the attention of a cycling magazine, which then published a blog post about the study; and later there was coverage in the mainstream media about the research as well as air pollution and environmental issues.

Points to note

Despite social media having been increasingly used in research, the nature of online social data has led to concerns about research ethics. For example, there is not yet a common understanding about whether the online activities on social media platforms should be regarded as public or private behaviour. Therefore, researchers must be careful in handling social media data, and should make sure that the issues of consent and confidentiality are properly addressed (Phillips, 2011).

For further details about the use of social media in research, you can refer to, for example, Guide to Social Media for Research (Newcastle University, 2017) and Ten Steps for Setting up an Online Journal Club (Chan et al., 2015). The Research Resources section in this issue of the Research Bulletin also introduces useful online resources on this topic.


Bright, J., Margetts, H., Hale, S., & Yasseri, T. (2014). The use of social media for research and analysis: A feasibility study. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/use-of-social-media-for-research-and-analysis.

Chan, T. M., Thoma, B., Radecki, R., Topf, J., Woo, H. H., Kao, L. S., Cochran, A., Hiremath, S., & Lin, M. (2015). Ten steps for setting up an online journal club. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 35, 148–154.

Duque, L. (2016). How academics and researchers can get more out of social media. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Kjellberg, S., Haider, J., & Sundin, O. (2016). Researchers' use of social network sites: A scoping review. Library & Information Science Research, 38, 224–234.

Newcastle University (2017). Social media for research. Retrieved from http://libguides.ncl.ac.uk/socialmedia.

Noorden, R. V. (2014). Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network. Nature, 512(7513).

Phillips, M. L. (2011). Using social media in your research. gradPSYCH Magazine, 9(4), 32.

Reeve, M. A., & Partridge, M. (2017). The use of social media to combat research-isolation. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 110(5), 449–456.

Young, S. D., Rivers, C., & Lewis, B. (2014). Methods of using real-time social media technologies for detection and remote monitoring of HIV outcomes. Preventive Medicine, 63(4), 112–115.



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