Q&A: Mike Thelwall

A new spin on a well-known web

Professor Mike Thelwall is a computer scientist and mathematician at the University’s School of Computing and Information Technology. The 43-year-old from Penn, Wolverhampton, was recently ranked number one in a list of leading researchers in his field of informetrics, and he specialises in measuring the value of web pages.

1 What is your work about?

We develop methods to gather information from the web on a large scale and then process the information for various different purposes. Our work has included projects for the European Union and the BBC World Service Trust.

2 How is it applicable to everyday life?

An example is a European Union project to identify when there is a public concern about scientific research. In the past there have been cases of public fear about issues, such as stem cell research or Genetically Modified crops. The EU wanted us develop a method to identify new topics of concern – before they hit the newspapers. The technique was to download 100,000 blogs everyday and automatically scan them, and identify words which were indicative of public concern on a particular topic.

3 What do you enjoy about your work?

I like having a problem and having an idea about what the solution may be, and then implementing the solution. I particularly like the early stages of a project.

4 What research are you working on currently?

We are looking at social networks as a logical extension from our blog research. We are trying to find out how people share information on social network sites, such as MySpace, which were created for socialising among friends, but were not really designed for information sharing. We are also researching how online jokes spread around the world and vary depending on different nationalities.

5 What is the next stage of your research?

Subject to funding, we are looking at sentiment analysis, which involves analysing blogs to detect positive, negative and neutral attitudes. It is quite tricky – as humans we can detect sarcasm and irony, but computers cannot. This could help market research companies analyse online material and act quickly if there is negative feeling to protect their brand.

6 How do you see your work developing in the future?

It is so difficult to predict what the next big online thing will be – but whatever it is, we will research it!

7 What is your greatest professional achievement?

Getting the University of Wolverhampton Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group started in December 2000. When we began, no-one in Wolverhampton had done any research in this area before, and getting the first research published felt like a great achievement. We now have 12 members who are lecturers, PhD students, postgraduates and visiting professors from Amsterdam.

8 What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I like relaxing with my family and going to the pub on a Friday night.

9 What is the most unusual thing about your job?

The strangest thing is that the people I work with are scattered around the world. There are people I exchange an email with every week and are like friends, but I will meet them very rarely. I have even completed research projects with people in New Zealand and South Korea before I have even met them.

10 What is the biggest misconception about what your work involves?

People think I am a robot scientist – they misread cybermetrics as cybernetics!