Why do academics use social networking sites?

Posted by Lou Woodley, Trellis’ Community Engagement Director

Person using a laptop
Browsing” by Nick Olejniczak under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week some of the Trellis team took a quick look at a recent paper, which asks “Why do academics use academic social networking sites?” The paper presents the results of a survey of 81 researchers at three Israeli institutes who were asked about their motivations for using ResearchGate and Academia.edu.

The survey draws upon the Uses and Gratifications theory from the field of media studies for its research questions – exploring whether the five broad motivations for media consumers may also apply to academics that use online professional networks. Here we outline that theory and then highlight some of the findings from the paper.


Uses and gratifications theory

This theory was developed in the 1970s based on the consumption of media such as television, radio and newspapers. It outlines 5 key needs that media may fulfill for the consumer:

1. Cognitive – a way of getting information

2. Affective – a way of finding pleasure and enjoyment

3. Social – a way of belonging or influencing others or contributing

4. Individual – a way of promoting oneself or gaining confidence

5. Escapist – a way of distracting oneself and constructing an alternative reality

The theory has already been used to look at the motivators for using other internet sites such as Wikipedia, some social networks and sites for online shopping. In studies of sites that contain user-generated content, the behavior shown by users is split into three types: consuming information, creating information and participating in social interaction.

Unsurprisingly, the motivations for using a site tend to correlate well with its function e.g. Users who go to information sites tend to be motivated by consuming information.

Social networks are a particularly interesting case because, in comparison to traditional media such as television, there are genuine social gratifications that can be realized – such as interacting with others, building a reputation and boosting one’s ego.


So what about the academics?

In this study, the participants were given 26 statements to rate according to a 5-point Likert scale (with options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, or equivalent). The statements each gave a possible motivation for using an academic social network.

The five gratifications were identified in the following order or importance for the academics surveyed:

1. Self-promotion and ego-bolstering

This was the most important gratification for academics on academic social networks. They particularly identified with the statement “I want to satisfy my curiosity about the popularity of my articles”. Note that this function is directly served by both of the sites looked at in this study so this statement will not necessarily apply to other academic networks.

2. Acquisition of professional knowledge

Researchers state that they “want to learn about new research trends” and rate this slightly more highly than wanting learn about the people working in a particular field.

3. Belonging to a professional community

The top ranked statement here was “I want to be like all my colleagues”. Interestingly, this sense of belonging doesn’t actually require interaction with others – you can “belong” just because you perceive you have a presence where everyone else is. This has interesting marketing implications for those promoting academic social networks.

4. Interactions with professionals

What was interesting about this gratification – ranked 4th overall by the participants – was that the statements which scored most highly in this category (e.g. “Want to create academic collaborations”) were those with very general language. Statements with more specific language such as “Want answers to professional questions from researchers in my field” scored poorly.

5. Escapism

This was not an important motivator for the use of academic social networks.


So what does this mean for academic social networks?

Ironically, they’re not very social places! The researchers surveyed tended to view them less as a place for direct interaction with others and more as a place to find information. This means that they’re more of an interactive database than a buzzing social hub.

What seems important from a marketing perspective is that academics feel that their peers are already on the site, that it’s doing useful things to raise their reputation, and that it gives them access to information about new trends and potential collaborators. Emphasizing specific tasks such as the ability to get questions answered seem to be less resonant.


So how typical is this data?

The sample size for this study is admittedly small and confined to researchers present in only three institutes in Israel. 75% of the respondents had an account on either ResearchGate or Academia.edu with 25% of respondents having a presence on both. No difference between men and women were shown in the results.


In a second post about this paper, we’ll explore how Trellis is similar and different to the definition of an academic social network described.

If you’d like to continue the conversations about this paper or other related topics, you can request to join the C4Sci – Communities for Science Communication group on Trellis here.

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