How Social Media Makes Us #SeriousAcademics

Maxine Mackintosh

Chair of HealthTech Women UK; PhD student at Farr Institute Health Informatics, University College London, London, UK

Last week, the Guardian published an anonymous article titled: ‘I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer’.1 Our nameless author took us on a journey of distaste that covered the ‘selfie’, the disingenuity of tweeters, and the discomfort they feel about the expectation to be active on social media. The irony is that this is precisely what makes this PhD student a bad researcher.

How dare I, a serious academic, behave in the same way as everyone else and engage with social media? How dare I live-tweet through an eye-wateringly expensive conference so that others less fortunate than myself might also see the content? How dare I express views about topics not funded by the taxpayer, be it technology, art, or heaven forbid, politics, the audacity!

Research is about the advancement of human knowledge and, since the 17th century, publishing has been the means. Yet, compare the first science journal Philosophical Transactions by the Royal Society2 from 1665 with any publication published in 2016. Other than the font, they don’t look dissimilar. Our means of scientific communication have not changed in almost 350 years.

Thankfully, the Internet has tried its best to disrupt that. Nearly 2.5 million scientific articles3 are published annually, almost a fifth of papers have international collaborations4 and less than 10% of publications have only one author.5 The internet has democratised and facilitated collaborative research. This has been against a backdrop of international movements towards open access journals, internationalisation of research, and an ever-growing number of academia-industry collaborations. Science is all the better for it.

Yet ~50% of academic publications6 will never be cited and nearly 50% of academic research remains behind a paywall.7 Furthermore, journals are largely written in inaccessible, convoluted prose, meaning only the expert elite can comprehend them. Compare this to the tech world, a sector driving innovation to areas one could have never imagined, where code is freely uploaded for people to use, challenge, and adapt. Unfortunately, this culture is yet to pervade into academia.

I am a PhD student at the Farr Institute,8 University College London, London, UK, where the sole focus is using data, from across the health, social care, and commercial data worlds, to bring about better population health. That involves using individuals’ most personal (and anonymised) data. What right do I have to be funded by taxpayers’ money and to use UK citizens’ data, but not communicate my findings of their information in an easily digestible way? It goes further than that. Many of us will be familiar with Care.Data, an NHS England programme9 that aimed to bring together health and social care information to help us better understand patterns of public health. Unfortunately, it failed. This was largely due to miscommunication with the public, ultimately causing years of wasted time and resources, and the ultimate abandonment of what would have been one of the greatest resources in heath informatics internationally. Poor communication to the non-academic world is not only important, but a disregard for it can halt essential research.

The scientific method is not obsolete and the case for processes such as peer review are essential to validate and challenge new research, but there is no badge of honour to be worn in disseminating knowledge from one’s ivory academic tower only to be shown off in the “dreaded grant applications.”1 Social media has diluted the truth10 and the response should not be to disengage, but to use social media and to judge its content with the same academic rigour and analysis one would apply when critically appraising research.

The disgruntled anonymous PhD student believes that: “employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts.”1 This may be the case, but employability is determined by impact. Imagine an academic world where we pursue cold, hard, quantitative evidence of traffic and citations, always looking for an outlet with the highest ‘impact factor’. Instagram likes and academic citations are not as dissimilar as one might think. Both are fickle representations of impact.

Knowledge is useless unless shared and disseminated. To not engage in modern platforms of information exchange not only prevents you from being a ‘serious academic’, I would argue that it also makes you a bad researcher.

Follow #SeriousAcademic on Twitter which has been trending since publication of the original article.




  1. The Guardian. I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer. August 2016. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  2. The Royal Society Publishing. Philosophical Transactions; the world’s first science journal. 2016. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  3. STM: The Global Voice of Scholarly Publishing. The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing. Fourth Edition. March 2015. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  4. Chan J. International research collaboration growing but still hard to measure. 26 October 2015. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  5. King C. Single-author papers: A waning share of output, but still providing the tools for progress. September 2013. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  6. Remler D. Are 90% of academic papers really never cited? Reviewing the literature on academic citations. 23 April 2014. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  7. European Commission. Proportion of Open Access Papers Published in Peer-Reviewed Journals at the European and World Levels- 1996-2013. 22 October 2014. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  8. The Farr Institute for Health Informatics Research. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  9. NHS England. The programme. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.
  10. Viner K. How technology disrupted the truth. 12 July 2016. Available at: Last accessed: 09 August 2016.

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