Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Building an online presence as an academic

There are several reasons an academic might want to establish an online presence. The first is good old-fashioned self-promotion: this is especially important for early-career academics. No-one else is going to promote your work, so you have to do it yourself. Carefully building an online presence that connects your name with your area of expertise is one way to build your profile and to get your name known.

I have quite a common name ("Michael" and "John" are something like the second or third most common given names for males in my generation, and "Watts" is the second or third most common surname for people of English ancestry) but if you Google for "Michael Watts computational intelligence" 45 of the first 50 hits are either my pages or pages that specifically mention me, such as committees I serve on. So, as far as Google is concerned, my name is linked pretty strongly with computational intelligence (certainly more strongly than it is with ecological modelling - 29/50 - which is what I get paid to do).

Secondly, communicating your work to other scientists and to the public is at the heart of what scientists do: idealistically, our work is done to benefit humanity, but it cannot do that if no-one knows about what you do. Of course, the primary means of communicating with other scientists is via papers and conferences, but papers are not very accessible to the general public: they are written for other scientists, that is, they can be quite abstract and hard to read, and papers can be hard to find, that is, locked behind pay-walls. An online presence, however, can be made much more accessible. It does not need to be written in the strict "scientific style", it can include links to supporting material to assist reader comprehension, and it is freely available.


Having a website is a good start, and is a good place to put things like software and teaching materials that you want to make available for others to use. If you have something to say though (and every scientist should have something to say) then a blog is an excellent way of saying it. I started this blog because I was inspired to do so by two of the people I work with, both of whom run popular blogs, on climate change and conservation biology respectively. After studying their blogs and realising that there was nothing equivalent for computational intelligence, I started this blog. It takes me an hour or two per week to produce new content for the blog, which I personally think is time well spent.

There are many social media and networking sites out there, and it is worth your time to establish profiles in as many of them as you can. The obvious ones are Facebook*, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ but there are also a number of networking sites specifically for academics. The big ones appear to be Academia.edu and ResearchGate, but others are network.nature.com, Epernicus, KES International, Research pages, the Research Cooperative, scholarz.net, biomedexperts.com, scispace.com, mynetresearch.com, labroots.com, researchiscool.com, iamresearcher.com, researchr.org and hypertope.com. There are also publication trackers like Google Scholar Citations and Researcher ID. Most networking and social media sites allow you to specify a research interest and a home page, so I always list computational intelligence and point them all to my own web site. This has the effect of creating a lot of points on the web that, firstly, associate my name with computational intelligence, and secondly, associate my name with my website. This has the effect of boosting my name in the search engine results. It can be a lot of work to set these profiles up, especially if you have a lot of publications, but maintenance after that is limited to updating sites when you publish new papers.

Having a website isn't that expensive (I pay about AU$110 per year for the website and domain name). Blogs are free (unless you want to associate it with a domain name, which is still pretty cheap), as are the social media and networking sites I use. The best thing is, many of these can be linked together so that an update on one site is propagated to others (see the report I wrote here about linking this blog to other sites).

There are several articles about scientists and social media that are well worth a read: here, here, here, here, and here. These cover things like using Twitter to communicate more effectively. So, why not invest some time and a bit of money, and start establishing your own online presence?


*You may notice that I haven't linked to my Facebook profile: this is because I mostly use Facebook to keep in touch with old friends and family members, who aren't particularly interested in Computational Intelligence.

Edited 17 April to add link to researchr.org
Edited 11 April to add link to iamresearcher.com