Harnessing social media for social work research and scholarship

The blog post was written by Laurel Hitchcock (University of Alabama, Birmingham) and Melanie Sage (University at Buffalo). In it we describe our visit with the College of Social Work at the Ohio State University in August 2017, where we talked about how social work faculty can harness technology for their social work scholarship.  We also interviewed two of our OSU Social Work faculty colleagues, Dr. Bridget Freisthler and Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, about our presentation and how it supports their use of technology for scholarship. This is cross-posted at Laurel’s blog.

Dissemination to the right stakeholders is a crucial part of social work research.  However, as social work academics, we are often trained to think that publication in peer-reviewed journals is the pinnacle of sharing our research with our peers and the academy.  But for our work to have substantial impact, we want it to reach service providers, communities, and consumers, too. Access to peer-reviewed journals can be challenging due to cost, availability, and language complexity. Increasingly, academics and research scientists are turning to social media platforms as a way to disseminate and engage with others about their work. Terms associated with this kind of dissemination include engaged or public scholarship, citizen scholars, and digital civil engagement.

One of the early studies looking at the value of social media in research dissemination was an article by Darling, Shiffman, Côté, and Drew (2013) titled The role of twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication. Based on a survey of 116 marine biologists, they found that scientists who used Twitter for professional reasons could develop new research ideas and easily share works-in-progress for pre-reviews.  Additionally, these researchers found they could communicate their findings not only with other academics, but also with broader audiences such as decision makers, journalists and the public in a way that could amplify the scientific and social impact of publications, and that sharing in this way increased their citations too.  Here is an infographic of the article’s major findings.

So how does this translate to social work research? Social workers have important roles of disseminating knowledge about what’s happening and what works in practice, from micro to macro spheres.  Social media platforms are well-placed to allow social workers across the professional continuum to engage with each other, creating communities of learning and practice that bridge the gap between practice and research in social work. We (blog authors) find it has enhances our collaboration opportunities and the reach of our research, so we have adopted the role of citizen scholar evangelists. We present to multiple audiences, from peers to conference attendees, about the role, benefits, and cautions of social media in social work scholarship.

Based on our expertise in this area, we were invited to lead a discussion about the role of technology in social work scholarship at the Social Work’s Grand Challenge Initiative Conference (#GC4SW) held at the University of Southern California (April 25-28, 2017). This conference pulled together academics in our discipline to discuss the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge: Harness Technology for Social Good.  During our invited presentation, we shared the ways in which social media can be a tool to help social work academics and practitioners to discover and share knowledge, as well as build relationships for collaborative work. . We suggested four practices with social media for advancing the Grand Challenges for Social Work; you can read about them here.

More recently, Dr. Bridget Freisthler, Professor and Associate Dean of Research, invited us to talk about technology and social work scholarship at a social work research symposium at Ohio State University College of Social Work.  She describes her reasons for wanting us to share this information with OSU Social Work Faculty:

I was looking for innovative ways to showcase the work of our faculty and to think about ‘impact’ as being broader than the number of downloads and citations of research manuscripts. In the bigger picture, science is not treated as having the same gravitas as it might have once had. I feel strongly that this is, in part, due to the inaccessibility of scientific findings and knowing the real ways in which science can and has improved our lives. Social media and infographics allow us to embed scientific findings in formats that are already being used by the general population. This translational piece allows us to move our work from “bench” to the “bedside” as they say in medical research.  Laurel and Melanie sparked this idea when we all met at the Grand Challenges Technology conference in April 2017 (B. Freisthler, personal communication, September 5, 2017).

In order to illustrate the potential of infographics as a tool for dissemination, we worked with OSU Social Work Professor Dr. Holly Dabelko-Schoeny  prior to our visit to create an infographic about her research on Equine-Assisted Therapy.  Using a software called Piktochart, we drafted an infographic based on Holly’s initial research findings and then collaborated with Holly on edits to create this final infographic, pictured below.

This image showcases research outcomes

Social Work Research Infographic


We shared this infographic during our presentation at OSU, and later Holly described how this infographic helped with her research project:

The infographic has already helped me in multiple ways.  First, I have used it as a mechanism to share my research findings in real time, quickly, prior to completing manuscripts about the work. Second, sharing the information on social media has connected me with another equine-assisted therapy researcher from the University of Washington in the College of Nursing.   We are meeting next month when she is “out east” for a conference. Third, the infographic is being shared with the private donor who funded of our study in an effort to update him on our progress and to ask for additional funding.  Finally, the infographic is being used by our community partner, PBJ Connections at their annual fundraiser event.  Our community partner anticipates using it for multiple fundraising purposes (H. Dabelko-Schoeny, personal communication, September 5, 2017).

One of our recommendations to the OSU Social Work Faculty was to start thinking about how to disseminate their findings via social media early on in their research process.  Holly offered some suggestions for faculty wanting to create infographics to disseminate their research:

The software available to create infographics is easy to use.  Anyone can do it!  Infographics can be used as a learning tool for Graduate Research Assistant and other doctoral students.  The format forces the user to present only the most critical elements of the study and to think about how to present research in a visual format.  Once the infographic is built, you can use it to promote your work, as part of trainings for students, colleagues and community members, to share with potential funders, as the basis for writing a study abstract, and sharing your work through social media outlets.  Another suggestion I have is to have text at the bottom of the infographic that includes instructions about how to cite the infographic (H. Dabelko-Schoeny, personal communication, September 5, 2017).

After sharing this applied example alongside other recommendations for research practice, we used PollEverywhere to ask the attendees what they thought.  All the participants who answered our poll said that they could imagine reaching new audiences via social media to share their scholarship (N= 27).  They also reported that, based on the presentation, they were willing to try a new tech tool (Twitter, Picktochart, etc.) to share their research.  Check out the word cloud to see more about the attendees’ reactions.

Holly sent us her final thoughts for social work educators about disseminating their scholarship:

We need to continue to think about creative ways to disseminate our work, to have impact, beyond simply publishing in peer-reviewed academic articles.  These other ways of dissemination will assist us in establishing ourselves as leaders in a particular area of inquiry, connecting us to other researchers and community partners, reaching practitioners to translate research to practice and responding to interests of potential funders (H. Dabelko-Schoeny, personal communication, September 5, 2017).

Bridget also shared her key takeaway from the day:

The work we do as social work researchers can be so much more powerful if we engage folks outside of academia. If we are serious about making positive change, then we have a responsibility to engage with the general population about these important issues (B. Freisthler, personal communication, September 5, 2017).

If you are interested in learning more about our presentation, you can check out the slides which are posted on SlideShare by visiting Laurel’s blog.  If you know of another audience who needs help thinking about the connections between technology and social work, drop us a line.

Have you shared your own research findings via social or digital media?  Please share your ideas!

Image credit: Animated Heaven



Darling, E. S., Shiffman, D., Côté, I. M., & Drew, J. A. (2013). The role of twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication. arXiv:1305.0435 [Physics, Q-Bio]. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.0435

Hitchcock, L. I., &  Sage, M. (2017, May 4). Harnessing Social Media for Social Good at #CG4SW [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.laureliversonhitchcock.org/2017/05/05/harnessing-social-media-for-social-good-at-cg4sw/

How to Cite this post:

Hitchcock, L. I., &  Sage, M. (2017, September 29). Harnessing Technology for Social Work Scholarship: #CSWResearch Day at Ohio State University [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.husita.org/?p=2415&preview=true.

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