Understanding the structure and role of academics' ego-networks on social networking sites

Jordan, Katherine Lucy (2017). Understanding the structure and role of academics' ego-networks on social networking sites. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000bc83


Academic social networking sites (SNS) seek to bring the benefits of online networking to an academic audience. Currently, the two largest sites are Academia.edu and ResearchGate. The ability to make connections to others is a defining affordance of SNS, but what are the characteristics of the network structures being facilitated by academic SNS, and how does this relate to their professional use by academics?

This study addressed this question through mixed methods social network analysis. First, an online survey was conducted to gain contextual data and recruit participants (n = 528). Second, ego-networks were drawn up for a sub-sample of 55 academics (reflecting a range of job positions and disciplines). Ego-networks were sampled from an academic SNS and Twitter for each participant. Third, co-interpretive interviews were held with 18 participants, to understand the significance of the structures and how the networks were constructed.

Academic SNS networks were smaller and more highly clustered; Twitter networks were larger and more diffuse. Communities within networks are more frequently defined by institutions and research interests on academic SNS, compared to research topics and personal interests on Twitter. Emerging themes link network structure to differences in how academics conceptualise and use the sites. Academic SNS are regarded as a more formal academic identity, akin to a business card, or used as a personal repository. Twitter is viewed as a space where personal and professional are mixed, similar to a conference coffee break. Academic SNS replicate existing professional connections, Twitter reinforces existing professional relationships and fosters novel connections. Several strategies underpinning academics’ use of the sites were identified, including: circumventing institutional constraints; extending academic space; finding a niche; promotion and impact; and academic freedom. These themes also provide a bridge between academic identity development online and formal academic identity and institutional roles.

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