Tenure and Promotion in the Age of Online Social Media



Online social media tools are fast becoming an important and integral part of the academic life. However, there is very little hard data on why and how scholars are using them. This paper presents the results of our ongoing study on how academics are using these new tools for communication and information dissemination. We specifically look at how scholars themselves view the role that online social media might play in the tenure and promotion process at academic and research institutions. The results of our study find that the use of online social media is currently not widely recognized by most research institutions as part of their tenure and promotion review process. However, according to our interview data, this will likely change in the future as more and more scholars turn to these new tools to aid them in their professional endeavors. The trending changes found in this study are important not only for the future of scholarly knowledge and information dissemination, but also for the changes it will bring to universities’ tenure and promotion policies and to publishers of scholarly work.


Online Social Media (OSM), Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Scholarly Practices, Information Dissemination, Tenure and Promotion.


Although online social media (OSM) tools such as blogs, wikis and social networking websites are relatively new, as compared to other forms of Information and Communication Technologies, their use has skyrocketed among the general public. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that about 62% of internet users in the US are using social networking sites (Rainie, et.al., 2011), and this number is rapidly growing. However, it is not just the general public, but scholars who are also increasingly paying more attention to and experimenting with OSM in their professional lives. A recent example of this is the use of wikis and blogs by complexity theorists to collaborate and debate the accuracy of "a claimed proof for one of the most profound and difficult problems facing mathematicians and computer scientists" (Markoff, 2010). The problem is known as the "P versus NP" problem. A mathematician, Dr. Deolalikar, allegedly proved that P does not equal NP. When Dr. Deolalikar first announced that he had solved the P versus NP problem, other mathematicians were skeptical and turned to wikis and blogs to debate the accuracy and validity of this proof. According to Markoff (2010), the level and pace of collaboration to test this new proof was unprecedented in the mathematical field. These quick conversations were made possible as a result of access to online social media and networking sites. A similar situation arose on Twitter when researchers claimed to have found a gene that predicted the human lifespan, in Science magazine (Mandavilli, 2011). Researchers and other interested parties turned to Twitter, a microblogging platform, to discuss and debate these findings in real time. This led to the discovery of a problem with the methodology of the study very shortly after it had been released. The availability of online social media and networking technologies has made these unofficial peer-reviews faster and more widely available. Before the advent of OSM, debates such as these would have taken months if not years to develop via peer-reviewed journals and private emails and listservs.
Previous studies have also hinted at other benefits associated with the scholarly use of OSM, such as keeping up with current research (Maron, et al., 2008), ease and immediacy of access (Gardiner, 2006), as well as effective collaboration and communication (Bonetta, 2007; Menzies, 2007; Procter, et al., 2010). A study of 10 science bloggers, for example, found that reading their peers’ blogs not only served to keep them up to date with research and issues in their field, but also increased their familiarity with other scholars interested in the same topics (Bonetta, 2007). This served to extend their peer network and form new connections, which is another common benefit of OSM use among scholars (Collins and Hide, 2010). The use of OSM has also been associated with career advancement, increased visibility, and opportunities for self-publishing (Bukvova, et al., 2010; Dubini, et al, 2010).
Although online social media and networking technologies are gaining in popularity and importance in scholarly communities, this trend does not always extend to the institutions, organizations, and publishing platforms that support them. Many scholars in previous studies have claimed that online publishing, and the participation in online communities and collaborations, are not encouraged, supported, or rewarded by their institution (Ayris, 2009; Kirkup, 2010). In some cases, participation in online communities has led to the termination of a faculty member, as in the case of one professor who was fired from a US university for posting unspecified material to her personal blog (Horwedel, 2006). Institutions are often cautious about encouraging OSM use by their faculty because it is still so new, while scholars are hesitant to contribute because they do not know how their institutions view such initiatives (Ayris, 2009). So the use and worth of social media become yet another perfect example of the classic problem of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? This quandary has proven to be a major impediment to the wider use of social media and networking sites by scholars.
With this as background information, this paper seeks to answer the key questions as to whether academic institutions should improve their support of the scholarly use of these new technologies. And more specifically, should OSM be formally included as part of the tenure and promotion guidelines? And if yes, how? This paper is part of our ongoing efforts to study how scholars in Library and Information Science and other disciplines are adopting and adapting to these new tools for communication and information dissemination purposes.


Before we started our study, we first had to define what is meant by online social media; as we soon learned it was not an easy task. Online social media tools are commonly associated with what is referred to as web 2.0 technologies and the presence of user generated content (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010; Procter, et al., 2010). The term web 2.0 was first used in its modern meaning in early 2000s to refer to the new way the internet was being used, allowing for more participatory and collaborative surfing of the web as well as creation and modification of online content. Notably, web 2.0 does not refer to a specific application, but rather to a technological and ideological change in the way the internet is used. One of the key components of web 2.0 is ‘user generated content’ that often refers to any form of user created media, which is published on a publically accessible website or a website accessible to a select group of people (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). Some examples of early OSM include tools like blogs and wikis, joined later by social networking sites like Friendster, Myspace, and Facebook.
However, today more and more websites are beginning to incorporate user generated content, such as comment platforms, and social networking features, such as the ability to subscribe to friends’ updates or share content with them, all of which are key characteristics that help to define web 2.0 technologies. The addition of such features to traditional websites is expanding the definition of social media sites and services as well as the number of social activities that users can now conduct on a wide variety of websites across the internet. For example, traditionally solitary activities such as online writing, reading, and reference gathering are now becoming more social due to the advent of OSM sites and services to support these activities such as Google Docs (an office application with social features to collaborate, share and publish documents online), Scribd (a document publishing, reading, and sharing platform) and Zotero (a reference management software with a variety of social interaction features such as reference sharing and group settings), just to name a few.
In recognition of this trend, we decided to employ a broad definition of OSM. Specifically, for the purposes of this study, we chose to refer to OSM tools as any web-based websites that include web 2.0 characteristics and contain some aspect of user generated content. This allowed us to include a wide variety of technologies from video/teleconferencing tools such as Skype and online media repositories such as Flickr, to microblogging tools like Twitter and social networking sites like Facebook and Academia.edu. We chose to employ this broad definition to allow for the widest number of social media tools to be recognized. In doing this we were able to gain the broadest view of OSM used by academics.
In addition to the OSM tools mentioned above, we also asked the participants about listserv groups. Although listservs are not examples of OSM and are not treated as OSM for the purpose of this study, they do exhibit many characteristics of modern OSM principles (unlike emails) such as a community-driven approach to online conversations and a notion of membership to a group or network of likeminded individuals. Furthermore, since listservs have been considered one of the primary channels for information dissemination and communication in scholarly communities for the last two decades, responses about listservs provided us with the baseline data on online scholarly communication which can then be used to compare other OSM tools.


To address the research questions mentioned above, an extensive literature review was conducted on this subject, followed by semi-structured interviews with scholars mainly from the Library and Information Science field who are also members of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). ASIS&T members were chosen for this study because they are known to be technologically savvy and tend to be early adopters of new technology such as online social media and social networking tools.
In total, the interviewees consisted of 51 conference attendees or individuals recommended by other interviewees. The participants were recruited via a direct email invitation before or in-person during the ASIS&T 2010 annual conference. Of the 51 scholars interviewed for this study, twenty-five (25) were males and twenty-six (26) were females. To ensure that there would be a variety of opinions in our survey, we took steps in our recruitment to ensure that interviewees hailed from a few different countries, and were working in a variety of positions within academia (See Table 1 below). Our secondary recruitment goal was to ensure that we included both scholars who are likely and unlikely to use OSM in their professional lives. We accomplished this by prominently highlighting and encouraging self-identified users and non-users of OSM to participate in our interviews.

United States
Europe (UK & Denmark)

Assistant Professor
Associate Professor
PhD Student

Library & Info Studies
Computer Science
Media/Communication Studies
Business Administration
Table 1. Demographic Information of Participants
The first set of interviews was conducted in person at the ASIS&T conference, which took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from October 22nd-27th, 2010. After the conference, individuals who agreed to participate in the study but did not attend the conference were interviewed over the phone.
The interviews were semi-structured, with a total of 13 prompting questions. Respondents were first asked about their use of 13 different kinds of online social media, and then asked to elaborate on their use of one OSM tool, that they defined as their most frequently used tool. After this participants were asked questions pertaining to: general online social media use, making new connections and reaching a wider audience through OSM, problems with OSM, the recognition of OSM during tenure and promotion reviews, and OSM in the future. Interviews lasted between 15 and 40 minutes depending on the participant. For the purposes of this paper, we will primarily focus on the questions related to the role of OSM in the tenure and promotion process and the future of OSM.
All interviews were recorded using a digital recorder and then manually transcribed. The confidentiality and anonymity of all participants was insured by making the names of study participants only known to the research team, using aliases for the interview participants in the transcriptions and excluding identifying characteristics in all reports and publications.
Data analysis was completed using NVivo 9, a qualitative data analysis software program. First, a thematic coding schema was developed based on preliminary analysis of interview data. Codes were developed based on the main OSM tools mentioned (blogs, wikis, etc), as well as general factors such as overall ‘benefits’, ‘problems’, ‘future trends’, etc. Two research assistants independently coded each interview transcript using the developed coding schema. Once both research assistants completed coding, both coded datasets were compared using NVivo. This comparison demonstrated that of 13,677 records (coded sections of transcriptions), 13,308 (97%) had an agreement percentage above 90%. One coded dataset was selected for further data analysis.


Academic tenure is a position awarded to scholars working at the university level who have completed a set probationary period at their institution (in the US and Canada this is usually 5-7 years), and have been awarded this position by a review committee or committees made up of their faculty dean, department chair, and a selection of their peers. This status is an important professional achievement; as after the attainment of a tenured faculty position at an academic institution, a scholar cannot be fired or let go without proven adequate cause (Hohm and Shore, 1998).
In order to earn tenure, a tenure-track faculty member must meet certain requirements as set out by their institution. These requirements are usually separated into three main broad components: 1) Research, 2) Service, and 3) Teaching. Although these components are usually given approximately equal weight in the tenure and promotion review process, the weighting of each component may vary from one academic institution to another, depending on the institutions’ goals and mandates. The specific requirements and guidelines associated with each of the three primary components that makes up the tenure and promotion process will be discussed below in relation to scholars’ OSM use. Since our study’s primary focus was on OSM use in the context of research related activities, this paper will only briefly touch on the teaching component.
Of the 51 people interviewed, only 6 scholars worked for an institution that currently recognized OSM use or publications as part of their tenure review and promotion process in some way. For example, one junior scholar stated “I looked into it, and they have a sort of cautiously-worded document […] that says something to the extent of ‘in view of the fact that there are a multiplicity of ways for scholarship […] evaluation should take into account publications in other media’.
Although OSM usage for publication and dissemination of research work is not yet widely recognized in the tenure and promotion process, most respondents (33 individuals) believed that it should be given some consideration, including 18 people who stated that OSM use or publications should be evaluated on a case by case basis (See Figure 1). One junior scholar stated, “I’d really like to see it become a part of tenure and promotion. Because I think that a lot of people are using it fully professionally. They’re making contacts, and they’re also positively contributing to the field […] and I think that’s a really important part of what faculty does. They sort of promote their field…
Figure 1. Should Online Social Media be Considered Towards Tenure or Promotion?
At the same time, of the respondents who believe that OSM use or publications should be considered, most raised concerns about how, and to what degree, they should be considered and whether they should count toward the research component or the service component of the tenure/promotion process. Similar concerns were raised by those who believed that OSM should not be considered in any form for tenure or promotion. For instance, one respondent stated that “I think it's a hard thing to quantify. I mean what does it mean to say you have 50,000 followers on Twitter? Does that mean that you are a better academic? Should that be recognized for promotion and tenure? I'm not so sure. What's the reason that you're being followed?” But this respondent also followed up by saying that “It's the same reason as with bibliometrics. Maybe they follow you because you do outrageous things and it has nothing to do with your professional standing.
The disagreement and uncertainty among scholars on the merit of OSM-based usage and publications no doubt reflects the lack of clear policies among academic institutions. It is this lack of clarity on the role of OSM in academia that prompted this study. In the following sections, we will discuss the applicability of OSM usage to the Research, Service and Teaching components separately. This section will also discuss indirect benefits of OSM use in relation to the current tenure and promotion process, and differences in OSM use between junior and more senior faculty members.

Research Component

The research component of the tenure review process can include a wide range of activities, including: scholars’ reputation in their field, conference participation, and originality of research. Generally regarded as the most influential and important aspect of a scholar’s research is their publication quality and quantity, as well as where their research was published and how influential and recognized it is in their field (Rhoadea-Catanach and Stout, 2000). The consistent publication of recognized scholarly articles is not only of major concern to junior faculty who are hoping to receive tenured positions, but to tenured faculty members as well.
Because of the amount of time it takes to publish through traditional peer-reviewed journals, many scholars are increasingly turning to self-publishing and other alternative publishing methods to disseminate their research (Ho, 2011). This is particularly true of scholars in fields like advanced physics and biology, where developments in their field of study often progress at a rapid rate, and demand almost instantaneous publication and feedback (Menzies, 2007).
Due to this growing popularity of self-publishing venues by scholars, we asked our interviewees if and how their use of traditional information dissemination tools (such as academic journals) has changed since they started using OSM tools. Only 25% (13) of participants stated that use of OSM tools has not changed their use of traditional information resources. About half (27 individuals) stated that these tools are used as a complimentary resource to traditional information resources. The level of professional OSM use of these respondents varies, and is mainly focused on finding information rather than disseminating it. One academic stated: “I follow a bunch of academics in my research area. So…I catch papers other people have published. So they do the same thing and tweet papers that they've had published, once they are published.
Finally, 10 scholars stated that the use of OSM tools professionally has inspired a large change in the way they use traditional information dissemination channels or made them more aware of the drawbacks to traditional information dissemination resources. Participants in this group often described this change as a move away from use of traditional (mainly print) resources, to an increased dependence on OSM tools for finding, and circulating information. In response to the microblogging tool Twitter, one of our interview respondents stated: “Twitter is really useful. In terms of knowing what’s going on, what the trends are…so it’s also a way to aggregate what’s going on…without necessarily having to read all the journals, follow all the conferences, things like that”.
All together, the majority (37 individuals) of our scholars stated that their use of these tools has inspired and or altered the way they used traditional information dissemination resources. This reinforces the fact that OSM tools are quickly becoming an integral part of modern scholarly life and practice. It also signifies a time in the near future when the use of these tools will also alter the current tenure and promotion review process.

Service Component

5 people in our sample suggested that OSM use should count towards the service component of tenure and promotion (see Figure 1). The service component of the tenure and promotion review process is perhaps the least clearly defined in many institutions’ tenure policies. It can include: an evaluation of the scholar’s contributions to the institutions’, departments’, or fields’ positive reputation, their time spent volunteering on committees and boards, and their positive contributions to the local community in general (Rhoadea-Catanach and Stout, 2000). To make positive contributions to these communities, OSM can be useful when used as part of scholars’ professional practices. The dissemination of information for example, was a frequently cited motivation for the use of social media and networking sites by scholars (Barjak, 2003; Letierce, et al 2010). This was shown to be especially important to scholars in educating the 'lay' public about scientific topics, especially ones which receive a lot of attention in the press (e.g., Bonetta, 2007; Bukvova, et al., 2010; Collins and Hide, 2010). OSM platforms allow the fast and wide dissemination of scholars’ current research and in this way can aid in fulfilling the service requirements in the tenure and promotion process.

Indirect Benefits

Although some of our survey participants felt that OSM use itself should not be considered as part of the tenure and promotion process, most recognized that its professional use does create many indirect benefits that could result in a scholar receiving a promotion or tenure: including establishing new professional contacts (30 respondents), maintaining existing contacts (17 respondents), keeping up to date (15 respondents) and promoting one’s work (13 respondents).
Interestingly, junior faculty members were twice more likely to mention the benefit of establishing new professional contacts than senior faculty members (See Figure 2). A number of more senior scholars in our study explained that they already have an established network, implying there is a lesser need for them to create new connections. Expanding on this, one senior professor stated: “so, if I have an existing network, I’m in conferences all the time, I am at a major research university…I’m not looking for more social contacts […] if you’ve got a more senior person, they’ve already got their network, they’ve already got their networking techniques worked out.
The scholars we interviewed also highlighted OSM’s usefulness in both collaborating and communicating with team members, sharing ideas, and making writing both easier and faster, especially with team members who are geographically distributed. One person said: “I have a friend [and], we’ve done presentations together, and she’s in [a different State]. So rather than sending an email back and forth, we find it’s easier to do it on Google docs...
This is in line with a number of previous studies in this area that also found and confirmed OSM’s ability to connect scholars and facilitate communication between peers (Barjak, 2006; Biernholtz et al., 2009; Letierce et al., 2010; Gardiner, 2006).
Figure 2. Percentage of Benefits Associated with OSM Use by Position

Junior vs. Senior Faculty

As the previous section suggested, there are some differences in OSM use between junior and senior faculty members. Since the focus of this paper is on tenure and promotion, we decided to compare responses between senior faculty (presumably the majority of which have achieved tenured), and junior faculty (who have not yet achieved tenure, but presumably will seek tenured positions in the future and thus have the highest stakes in this issue). Our participants were fairly evenly split between junior or senior scholars. In total there were 18 senior (the Associate level and up) and 19 junior faculty members (Assistant professor level). (See Table 1) For comparison purposes, we relied on percentages instead of raw counts. Tenured faculty members were likely to be more senior not only in professional status but in age as well, making generational preferences a factor. These differences in age and professional position are important to note in the analysis of this question since both factors have been shown to influence OSM use among scholars in our study.
The results of our study showed that junior faculty members are utilizing OSM tools more often than senior faculty members (see Figure 3). Specifically, junior faculty members are more likely to use: blogs, microblogs, social bookmarking tools, academic social networking, and bibliographic management sites than their senior cohorts. Listserv groups were the only tools that were used more often by senior faculty; 78% of the senior professors in our study used listservs, compared to 53% of junior professors.
Figure 3. Percentage of OSM Use by Position
Many of the OSM tools that junior faculty members are using tend to be those that are also useful in building and reinforcing social and professional connections and creating a higher profile, like: blogs, microblogs, and academic social networking sites. As the previous section suggested, junior professors might be utilizing these tools more than senior professors because they are still developing connections, while senior professors have already established connections and do not need OSM tools for this purpose. The establishment of a network of peers is important for scholars professionally, especially as it relates to finding potential collaborators and increasing publication output. These tools are also ideal in reaching out to the academic or the lay community in general, and facilitating scholars’ participation in institutional or community specific events. And, as the section on Service Component indicated, contributing knowledge through a blog, wiki, or microblog to various communities could be an important part of the service component in the tenure and promotion review process. As more frequent users of these tools, junior faculty members no doubt recognize these benefits and therefore would want them to be properly recognized at their institutions.
Interestingly, earlier studies on internet usage by scholars suggested that more senior scholars, who are usually in positions of security because of an established identity in their field, felt more confident in their use of new publication, communication, and networking sites. For example, in 2003 over 1,600 European scientists surveyed on their use of the internet for informal communication revealed that senior scholars had the highest usage levels (Barjak, 2006). A study conducted in 2005 on scholars’ ability to form new scholarly ties with previously unknown scholars also found similar results. Junior scholars were the least likely group to initiate contact with an unknown scholar, or to receive unsolicited communication from unknown academic sources (Genoni, et al., 2005).
However, more recent studies have demonstrated a reversal of these findings; junior faculty members are now increasingly embracing new technologies such as online social networking sites in their professional lives. A 2010 study conducted on 1,200 academic researchers in the UK found that the most common age for frequent users of web 2.0 technologies, especially blogs, were between the ages of 35 and 44 (Collins and Hide, 2010). From this and our study, it seems that for a variety of reasons junior faculty members are much more likely to adopt OSM technologies than their senior colleagues. Thus, it is only natural that in the years to come, the current class of junior faculty members will likely insist OSM use and publications be accepted formally as part of their tenure application packages.

Teaching Component

The teaching component of tenure evaluates how effective a scholar is as a university instructor. The method for evaluating this can include a review of student comment forms, and appropriateness of course materials and publications by the scholar related to their course (Rhoadea-Catanach and Stout, 2000). The use of online social media can be incorporated into a few of the evaluation criteria for the teaching component. Although we did not specifically focus on scholars’ use of OSM tools in their teaching and instruction as part of this study, it has been recognized in a number of studies to aid in these practices (e.g., Tian and Yan, 2011; McNely, et al., 2010). The use of OSM tools has been growing in university classrooms, with some surveys claiming adoption rates as high as 80% among university classrooms in the US (Moran, et al., 2010). This is in part driven by a high adoption rate of these tools among students. According to a recent study done by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, over 90% of students under 25 reported using social networking sites (SNS) (Smith and Caruso, 2010). It seems that instructors across North America are also quickly catching on to this fact, and are starting to incorporate SNS and social media into their lesson plans. In fact, almost two-thirds of faculty members in North America have used social media during a class (Moran, et al., 2010). For example, Dr. Alec Couros, an Associate Professor at the University of Regina, has started incorporating wikis into courses such as Educational Technology and Media (Chant, 2010). On the course wiki, students are invited to contribute to reading lists, discussions regarding assignments, and so on. Since the wiki is open, both current and past students are able to engage in the dialogue and contribute ideas. Another interesting example is from the University of Chicago Law School, where faculty and students created a microblogging platform called TweetChicago (http://webcast-law.uchicago.edu/tweetchicago), in which they contribute tweets regarding what they are doing and thinking about during the day. The purpose is to share projects, articles, or links of interest with the entire law school community, as well as provide prospective students with an idea of what daily life is like at their School.
Evidently, there are many potential benefits to using OSM tools in a classroom setting. For example, by having access to OSM tools, students can continue discussions started in one class and carry them over to another. Students also have a chance to view and build on conversations by others who took the same class in a previous semester. If used correctly, these new communication tools are a great way to create a sense of community among students and improve their ability to learn. Whether it is submitting questions via Twitter, blogging about current events related to general themes of the class, or using Facebook to carry out class discussions, students' class participation and engagement are likely to increase once OSM tools are introduced into the mix.
The way these tools are being used by faculty for teaching is especially important. Their main function is as an additional information resource provided to students (Moran, et al., 2010). Professors recognize that most students already know how to use popular social networking tools such as Facebook, making them resources with low learning curves for classrooms (Young, 2010).
Their wide familiarity to post-secondary students, coupled with the fact that many OSM tools are often free and easily accessible makes the use of these sites in the classroom an easy and relatively risk free supplement to classroom learning. Privacy however, is still a major concern when integrating these tools into teaching. Promoters of OSM tools for the classroom stress that professional boundaries need to be clearly separated from personal ones, by properly setting privacy settings and forming clear boundaries through the use of these tools (Young, 2010). Even with this risk, these tools are becoming a popular way for professors to engage their students, and connect them to information in and outside the classroom.

No comments