Tom Roper, Sam Burgess and Holly Case discuss the formation, use, benefits and limitations of Twitter chat sessions for forming and maintaining professional networks. They focus on the #ukmedlibs chat aimed at UK (and European) health library professionals, which has been running since May 2015.
Twitter chats offer a new way to undertake professional development and networking online. A Twitter chat takes place at a pre-arranged time, uses a hashtag to organise and aggregate tweets, and usually tackles an agenda of numbered questions.
Increasingly popular, a number of opportunities for clinicians to chats via Twitter now exist, for example, in the UK, those held under the #wecommunities[i] banner. Library-related chats in Britain include #chartership[ii] chat for candidates for CILIP chartership, #radlibchat[iii] from the Radical Librarians collective and #uklibchat[iv], whose chats take place under the strapline Instant Ideas and Collaboration. However, until recently, there was no British chat for library and information professionals working in the health sector.
The authors’ first encounter with Twitter chats was through the North American #medlibs[v] chat. Established in 2012, this chat takes place weekly. However chats take place on Thursdays at 18:00 PST/21:00pm EST, which is 2:00 GMT. The potential for participation by British and other European contributors is therefore limited largely to browsing the archives of chats. With this in mind, and after helpful advice from Nikki Detmar[vi], convenor of the #medlibs chats, the first author (TR) sent a message to the JISCMAIL lis-medical list on 6 February 2015 asking if there would be interest in a British chat; the idea was also mentioned, naturally, on Twitter. Replies were positive, and the other authors, HC and SB volunteered to help organise the first and subsequent chats, which took place in May 2015.
To establish a routine, we agreed that chats would always take place on the third Tuesday of the month, at 8 pm. We negotiated this arrangement with the other British-based library and information chats we could identify, as we had no wish to disrupt existing arrangements, although clashes cannot always be avoided. It has proved challenging to find a time that maximises participation, but we felt that few would find time in the working day to dedicate an hour to Twitter.
At each chat one of the team, or a guest, acts as facilitator and steers the discussion. Questions are set in advance and given a number. Participants are then encouraged to use the question number, to make it clear which question their contribution relates to. Participants also use the #ukmedlibs hashtag, thus ensuring that contributions are visible to others, can be aggregated by Twitter clients and then appear in the transcript. At the beginning, each participant is encouraged to tweet a short personal introduction.
The topic for each chat is determined in advance by the #ukmedlibs team, and announced on Twitter, e-mail lists, print newsletters and on the #ukmedlibs blog[vii]. Topics so far have been:
- The Health Education England Library and Knowledge Service Development Framework.
- The future of healthcare libraries
- Twitter journal club: a journal club conducted around Rethlefsen[viii]
- Health and public libraries partnerships
- Librarians as teachers
- A Twitter focus group on clinical and executive champions as advocates for library and knowledge services
- Festive frivolity: an exchange of bizarre articles from the biomedical literature in the style of Improbable Research[ix].
The first chat of 2016 (19 January) will be online critical appraisal training. The Critical Appraisal Skills Project (CASP) has organised two Twitter critical appraisal sessions using the hashtag #WeCATS[x] — one of the present authors (TR) helped facilitate their first chat. While #WeCATS chats are aimed at a nursing audience, we believe our chat will be the first time information professionals have conducted critical appraisal online, practicing the skills of critical appraisal online in a friendly atmosphere, with skilled facilitators.
We encourage participants and potential participants to put forward topics for future chats, and proposers can, if they wish, lead or facilitate the chat.
We knew that archiving would be essential to ensure that transcripts of chats were accessible after the event, and settled on Symplur, who as well as collecting and holding chat archives offer analytics services. Transcripts are automatically collated and made available the day after the chat.
What have we learnt?
Managing Twitter chats can be challenging. Participants and facilitators do not have the visual cues available that allow us to run face to face discussions. Everyone talks at once. This makes for interesting conversations and side-conversations, but may make it difficult to discern the general direction of the chat.
The format of chat transcripts necessarily means that they are not easy to read. It may be that some of the techniques used in qualitative and mixed methods research may be useful in making them more accessible and intelligible, as might the use of curation tools such as Storify.
We decided initially to hold chats on a monthly basis. The #medlibs chats take place weekly, and we were strongly advised that we should follow suit, but we worried about the sustainability of the workload of a weekly chat. Our North American colleagues have greater numbers to draw on, both for chat leaders and participants.
We have been helped considerably by support from senior leaders in health library and information work. Louise Goswami, National Programme Manager and Sue Lacey Bryant, Senior Advisor of Health Education England’s Knowledge for Healthcare programme, Imrana Ghumra, HE East of England LKS lead, and members of CILIP’s Health Libraries Group committee have all participated and promoted the chats.
Twitter may offer greater flexibility than some of the more formal structures for online education. Both virtual learning environments and MOOCs lack the openness and ease of use of Twitter. One professional association’s VLE was pithily and accurately described in another chat as having ‘the interface of a choose your own adventure’[xi] from the point of view of navigation. We sense that library and information professionals are looking for easier and more flexible ways to learn and to share professional experience and exchange views with colleagues.
As CILIP continues to promote revalidation to its members, it should be noted that participation in chats can count towards revalidation. Indeed, participation in every chat of the year would provide at least 12 hours of the 20 hours required by CILIP.
Our medium of discussion is English and the UK element of #ukmedlibs may be off-putting to would-be participants in continental Europe. We are keen to encourage wider participation, and it may be that, when we present at EAHIL’s conference in Seville in June, others will be inspired to take part, or to start their own.
We have used guidance from #uklibchat on how to participate effectively in a chat. Reviewing our experience, we feel that the key points are:
- Participants should ideally do more than lurk, should ask questions and offer thoughts, controversial or otherwise
- Use the hashtag and question number
- Stay on topic, though with the caveat that sometimes the best conversations have been peripheral to the topic
From the organisers’ perspective, we have learnt the perhaps obvious lesson that detailed planning, interesting topics and widespread publicity are key to successful chats.
Symplur’s analytics[xii] show that, as at 11 January, we had 1,193,365 impressions, 1,741 tweets and 204 participants. Symplur also analyses the ’influencers’ of each chat, by mentions, tweets and impressions.
A paper to be presented at the 2016 EAHIL conference in Seville will assess the impact of the chats.
We acknowledge the generous help and support of Nikki Detmar and her #medlibs colleagues, of those who run other British library-related Twitter chats and, above all, those who have led and participated in our chats, in helping us get #ukmedlibs off the ground.
[ii] Chartership chat (2012) Available at: http://cilipquals.pbworks.com/w/page/52708592/Chartership%20Chat (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[iii] Radical library chat (2015) Available at: https://rlc.radicallibrarianship.org/radical-library-chat/ (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[v] #medlibs chat: about (2012) Available at: http://medlibschat.blogspot.co.uk/p/about.html (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[vi] Dettmar, N. (2015) ‘Social Media: How to Hashtag Chat: Twitter Tips from #medlibs’, MLA News.
[vii] Roper, T. (2015) Ukmedlibs. Available at: https://ukmedlibs.wordpress.com/ (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[viii] Rethlefsen, M. L., Farrell, A. M., Osterhaus Trzasko, L. C. and Brigham, T. J. (2015) ‘Librarian co-authors correlated with higher quality reported search strategies in general internal medicine systematic reviews’, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 68(6), pp. 617–626. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2014.11.025
[ix] Improbable research (no date) Available at: http://www.improbable.com/ (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[x] #WeCATS Tweet chat Hashtag (2015) Available at: http://www.symplur.com/healthcare-hashtags/wecats/ (Accessed: 11 January 2016).
[xii] #ukmedlibs Tweet chat Hashtag (2016) Available at: http://www.symplur.com/healthcare-hashtags/ukmedlibs/ (Accessed: 11 January 2016).