Why every scientist needs an online profile

31 01 2013
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Don’t be guilty of this.

It astounds me every time I hear about a scientist who is reluctant to place her or his track record on the internet. Now, I may be a little over-the-top when it comes to my own web-presence (some have labelled me a ‘media tart’, but I don’t mind), but I am convinced that without a strong, regularly updated web presence, you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice.

Let’s go through the regularly raised objections that some academics make for avoiding the investment in a strong web presence:

  1. My employer will get angry
  2. My track record isn’t good enough (i.e., I’m embarrassed)
  3. What I do is no one else’s business
  4. I couldn’t be bothered; it’s too much work
  5. No one reads it anyway

While there might be some truth to items 1 & 2 (although the justification is weak or often plainly untrue), the last three are pure bullshit.

Let’s start by analysing the bullshit (rolls up sleeves, starts digging…).

It’s no one else’s business

How wrong can this perspective be? First, almost all science (especially in Australia) is publicly funded. Forget the modest contribution of real scientific advances made by industry (I’m focussing on published, peer-reviewed outputs here) – most research is funded by the taxpayer. So you not only have a responsibility to let people know what you do, you have a duty to do so. Second, if you’re that arrogant to think that science is only a personal endeavour, you are possibly contributing to the increase in science illiteracy and denial among the general public – shame on you.

Too much work

Again, I beg to differ. Most people at least have some semblance of a list of their publication record tucked away somewhere on their personal computer. If you’re an academic, you are in fact obliged these days to report your scientific output to your university, to your funding agencies and to your research partners. It’s really little effort to update a webpage with this basic information. I’m not saying that blogging or tweeting is everyone’s cup of tea (nor is it strictly necessary), but at the very least, a quick overview of your projects and publications (with linking URLs) is a bare minimum.

No one reads it

Unless you are a scientist who (a) never publishes, (b) never gets grants, (c) isn’t looking for work and/or (d) doesn’t do much at all, then this contention is utterly false. Pretty much every time I review a manuscript or a grant application, I google the researchers involved (at least the lead investigators). When I can’t find their history, I get frustrated, generally become grumpy, and am probably less likely to give a positive review. And let’s not even go there if you’re looking for a job. Even with your CV and publications list in-hand, as a selection committee member, I will ALWAYS google you. When I find that you haven’t even bothered to put yourself on the web, chances are you won’t even make the interview list.

Of course, there are also the other obvious advantages of having an online profile. When a journalist requires some expert opinion, she generally searches online (just like everyone else these days). When a policy wonk needs some advice, he does the same thing. In fact, your web presence is THE PRINCIPAL means by which people get to ‘know’ you – the internet has replaced all other search methods in this regard.

Now some comments on the first two points:

My employer will get angry

Yes, some employers (e.g., CSIRO, almost all government departments) are particularly nervous about their employees talking about what they’re paid to do (go figure), but none that I am aware of prevents their employees from bigging themselves online. After all, it’s the reputation of the institution that’s at stake, so it should welcome positive stories. At least a statement of what you do and a list of your achievements should not piss off even the most paranoid employer.

My track record isn’t good enough

This might be true, but it should never, ever stop you. In fact, your track record and your internet presence are intimately tied together (e.g., in the ways described above about manuscript and grant reviewing), so a downward spiral develops if you hide yourself away; in other words, your track record isn’t likely to improve if you’re internet-shy. If you’re an early-career researcher, then this perspective is ridiculous. Of course you probably don’t have a stellar track record yet - it takes time to develop. When I google an ECR online I will always take age and experience into account, so don’t worry about it.

A few other pointers on building your web presence:

  • While your institution’s web pages might be cumbersome, out-of-date, and nearly impossible to update, there are many alternatives. I am flabbergasted that so many scientists haven’t yet discovered Google Scholar; for the sake of your career, spend 10 minutes and get yourself a Google Scholar profile! There are other web services for this sort of thing, like Researcher ID (a bit cumbersome and incomplete), ORCID, Research Gate, Academia.edu, Linkedin, etc., so you have plenty of free services from which to choose.
  • Free blog sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogger) are common and can easily be used as personal or professional websites. You don’t necessarily have to blog with them.
  • Facebook can act as a professional website.
  • I’m also of the opinion that a strong media presence is a necessary component of a successful academic career. I won’t blather too much about that here, but see this previous post about expanding your media profile.
  • Finally, avoid putting up semi-naked photos of yourself on Facebook, or going on some ill-advised rant on someone else’s blog or news site. If most people knew just how easy it was for others to cyber-stalk them, they wouldn’t document all their foolishness online. Remember, we’re watching you.

CJA Bradshaw


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15 responses

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29 08 2013
Daniel Palacios

Hi Corey. I just saw this after my colleague Chris Parsons liked it on Facebook recently. It caught my attention because I’ve been thinking about some of these same issues. I’ve had a web page for quite some time, and over the years I have been slowly accumulating profiles on other ‘professional’ sites (Google Scholar, Research Gate, ResearcherID, ORCID, LinkedIn). My main comment is that I seem to have reached a level of saturation and fatigue stemming from the fact that, with the exception of Google Scholar, they all require regular revising and updating. So creating the profiles is a good first step, but keeping them up is just as important. And keeping the information consistent among them is also ideal. Hopefully, as these sites mature (and some fall by the wayside), they will be come more integrated. Some of them (e.g., ResearcherID and ORCID) offer some primitive integration, but it doesn’t work that well, as I found the system is not smart enough to recognize existing records and ends up creating lots of duplicates — and hence more work for you. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on how they’ve dealt with this and on how they allocate their efforts to these various sites.

29 08 2013
CJAB

You’re correct – it’s easy to waste far too much time with updating all these bloody networks. My approach has basically been to find the path of least resistance. Some thoughts:

1. It’s useful to keep ResearchID up-to-date because ISI uses it for things like Highly Cited lists and the like. Our employers love those.

2. ORCID does link with ResearchID, but clumsily. I have yet to pay it much attention (but see Point 1).

3. Linkedin: Once I set it up, I’ve never touched it since. All my tweets and blog posts are sent there automatically.

4. Facebook – it is entirely a professional portal that receives tweets and blog posts. Anything slightly superfluous gets hidden in private sub-groups.

5. Twitter: Entirely up to you how much time to waste. 5 posts/day is a good target.

6. ResearchGate seems to be very popular and I’ve uploaded almost all my papers there (they get downloaded at an amazing frequency). Until the publishing companies come at me with a copyright infringement notice, I’ll continue.

7. Academia.edu seems a little pointless to me – I pay it little attention.

I’m sure others have their own rules of limitation. These are just mine (for now).

29 08 2013
Akosua

This is a nice article, but a minor thing bothered me… isn’t it kind of unreasonable to let your review of a manuscript be influenced by the person’s history, background, or online presence? Isn’t the point of a review to evaluate the work in front of you? It shouldn’t matter if the person already has a bunch of high-impact papers, or none, the quality of the manuscript you are reviewing should be all that counts. Or am I just a naive PhD student?

29 08 2013
CJAB

My somewhat flippant comment about reviewing needs some explanation, I see. It is true that in a perfect world, all submissions AND reviews would be blind (the so-called ‘double-blind’ approach), but in reality, that’s nearly impossible (people often guess correctly anyway). I must say that I only google an author I’m reviewing if I have some queries regarding her/his previous work, for people do sometimes contradict their own work. I also google to get up to speed with the particular topic at hand – I review across a vast array of topics and I’m not always intimately familiar with the particulars. I also contest the favouritism aspect – if anything, a well-published author tends to be put under MORE scrutiny by reviewers because as I’ve said before, scientists are a real pack of bastards ;-). Seriously – it could have the potential of being abused, but I think the benefits far outweigh the odd negative incident.

28 08 2013
Miguel Bastos Araújo

Good post Corey.

28 08 2013
Miguel Araujo

Very good Corey!! Keep writing your good posts.

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1 02 2013
jessjessfisher

persuaded myself to start up my own environmentalist blog last week by convincing myself that nobody cares how rubbish it is/boring to read… at least you’re trying to change something! Also thanks, 3rd year into my University degree, i didn’t know you could get Google Scholar profiles! haha

31 01 2013
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31 01 2013
CJAB

Something just came to my attention about Google Scholar profiles – make sure that if you have one, it’s not classed as ‘private’! (defeats the purpose)

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