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15 questions to tell you if your professional online identity is an asset or a risk

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

...(and what you can do about it)

We’ve all got one, but what does your digital footprint say about you? Not everyone who asks themselves that question is happy with the answer. However, there are some simple things you can do to ensure your digital footprint represents you effectively and works for (not against) you.

The digital realm is full of risk. However, not having a digital footprint may be just as big a risk as having a poorly managed footprint. Many interview panelists will Google the people they short-list for jobs. The absence of a digital footprint may raise questions, if the applicant is claiming to be a researcher with an international profile. Are they not capable of creating an up-to-date, easily findable profile? Or are they trying to avoid having a digital footprint, and if so why?

For most researchers however, the greatest risk is their time and their reputation. Social media can suck up time and distract, and we’ve all heard of high profile people who have lost their jobs over an ill-judged social media post. However, there are ways of managing your digital footprint that do not risk either your time or reputation.

Answer these questions find out if your professional online identity is an asset or a risk:

Yes or no...

  1. I sometimes get invitations to do new work that I actually want through people that have found out about my work from my personal or institutional website

  2. There is one webpage where you can find out pretty much anything you need to know about me professionally

  3. Most of my online profiles are fairly up to date

  4. I have got a Google Scholar profile, so when my papers come up in a search, my name is hyperlinked to a list of all my other papers.

  5. If you do a Google search for my name with my University, I appear in the first page of results

  6. There is some information about me on my institutional profile but you can find out a lot more via my profiles on other websites

  7. When you Google my name with my University, you get a mix of professional and personal profiles and content

  8. When you Google my name with my University, you’re unlikely to find me

  9. You can find me on Twitter but the stuff I tweet about isn’t really related to my work

  10. I have quite a few old profiles on various websites that I’ve not been able to update

  11. My social media profile(s) represent me professionally and I generate content based on my work when I’ve got anything useful to say

  12. My professional and personal social media and other online profiles are clearly distinct from each other, and personal accounts are set to private

  13. I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to get out of spending time on social media

  14. I actively engage with others about my work on social media

  15. The number of people I’m connected to via social media is steadily growing

If you answered YES to questions 1-5 you have a useful and easily findable digital footprint. This is a safe place to be. Your work is easily findable (and citable) and you present a healthy professional image that represents you effectively and works for you.

If you answered YES to questions 6-10, you’ve got a bit of work to do if you want to build a digital footprint that represents and works for you effectively. This is a risky place to be as you could be missing important opportunities. Depending on the sort of personal content that appears in a Google search or how hard you are to find, your digital footprint may raise questions in some people’s minds about your credibility as a researcher doing internationally relevant or important work.

If you answered YES to questions 11-15, you have an influential, outward-reaching digital footprint.This is a more risky, but potentially much more rewarding place to be in. As you grow in influence, people will watch your every word, so there is less room for errors of judgement, but when you speak, the world listens and you can really influence debate. As your influence grows, your professional visibility grows, both in and out of the academy, and relevant opportunities for impact will start to come to you.

Step 1: what do you want your digital footprint to do for you?

The first step is to decide what you want to get out of your digital footprint. Your online presence shouldn’t just be a chore that you feel duty bound to continually update – it should give back to you in tangible ways. 

If you’re putting in lots of time and getting nothing back, then you either need to shrink your footprint to make it more manageable or change what you’re doing to get better value out of the time you invest online. Ask yourself whether you want your digital footprint to:

  • provide you with research networks, collaboration and funding opportunities and information; and/or

  • enable you to achieve impacts from your research beyond academia.

If you primarily want your digital footprint to enhance your research, then you do not need to engage with social media, but if you do, you will probably want a fairly small, highly focused networks of colleagues who you can learn from, influence and crowd-source information from.

If you also want your digital footprint to enable you to generate impacts from your research, then you will probably need to engage with some form of social media. There are more risks associated with achieving this goal (both in terms of time and reputation), but there are relatively low risk ways of starting out.

Step 2: How much risk are you willing to take?

The greater your visibility and influence, and the more you use your digital footprint to reach out beyond the academy, the more risk you will expose yourself to online. You could become a victim of your own success if you are unable to prioritise the responses and opportunities that arise, and you end up spending more time engaging online than you do on your research. An error of judgement might go un-noticed when you are starting out, but your every move will be seen when you have tens of thousands of followers. Depending on how controversial your research is (and sadly your gender), you may also find people taking your words out of context, misunderstanding and taking offence. We’ve all seen how emails can be mis read and taken out of context, leading to conflicts that could have been avoided if we had simply picked up the phone. Social media takes this possibility to a whole new level. When this happens, online abuse can quickly follow. 

It is important to be aware of these risks as a researcher online, and to make a conscious decision about the level of risk you are prepared to take before expanding your digital footprint in ways that will expose you to greater risk. If you only want your digital footprint to benefit your research, it is possible to take a fairly low-risk approach online. If you want to use your digital footprint to reach out more widely and start generating offline impacts from your research, then you will need to accept a higher level of risk, but there are still ways of keeping things safe.

Step 3: Take low-risk steps to make your digital footprint benefit your research

There are many quick and simple things you can do to make your digital footprint work more effectively for you.

  • Audit your digital footprint: do a Google search for your name and the institution you work for and see what comes up. If you’ve Googled yourself before, it is worth downloading a new browser or using a colleague’s device as Google will know that you are looking for you and not someone with a similar name, and automatically rank your institutional profile close to the top of the list. This is not what others searching for your name would see, unless they had searched for you a number of times in the past.

  • Interrogate your online identities: what profiles come up when you search for your name? Are they for you or someone else? Is your main institutional profile on the first page or do other profiles get listed first? Do these other profiles represent you the way you would like to be seen by the outside world?

  • Prune, cultivate or consolidate your online identities: first remove any non-professional identities or make them private. Next, ask yourself how each of these different profiles benefited you in the last year. If you aren’t getting any value then don’t waste your time keeping them up-to-date – remove your profile and focus your limited time on the profiles that are most likely to bring you the benefits you are seeking for your research. As part of this, you may consider consolidating many profiles into one or a few that you can more easily keep up to date. This may be as simple as ensuring that you have got links signposting the most relevant profiles (e.g. your Google Scholar publication list and Twitter account) from the profile that comes up first in a Google search (e.g. your institutional profile)

  • Actively manage your digital footprint: regularly review and update all your online profiles every six months or so

Step 4: Investigate low-risk online platforms designed for researchers

There are a number of low-risk online platforms for researchers to communicate their research that are worth investigating:

  • If you’ve got an academic email address, you can get a Google Scholar profile. Google will automatically populate your profile with your publications (you can correct it if there are mistakes) and rank them by citations. Now whenever one of your papers turns up in a Google Scholar search, your name will be hyperlinked from the author list to your profile so people can read more of your work, which could help boost citations

  • Unlike Google Scholar, ResearchGate and are actually social media platforms because they enable researchers to engage in debate around the publications they list. Although higher risk than Google Scholar, which does not allow this, the networks are only open to researchers, so risks of online abuse are lower than public social media platforms. These platforms also automatically populate your profile so they don’t take a lot of time. However, ensure that you go into settings in ResearchGate though, to prevent it spamming your co-authors on your behalf whenever it finds new papers you’ve written

  • Although relatively new, the UK-based social media platform for researchers, Piirus, has a large and rapidly growing user-base. This is a network with a difference though, as it provides researchers with small scale consultancy opportunities with Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) which can help you drive impact from your research

Step 5: Decide if and when you want to use your digital footprint to generate impact from your research

It is important to emphasise that you get to decide for yourself if you want to engage in higher risk activities online that are more likely to generate impacts from your research. No-one should make you feel left out or like you are a dinosaur because you have decided that you do not want to engage with social media. Weigh up the potential benefits and the risks, and then make a decision you feel happy with and stick to it with the confidence that you have made an informed decision. 

For many researchers, this is a fluid decision. The time may not be right for you now, but you would like to dip your toe in the water and slowly move towards a more influential and outward looking digital footprint. It is possible to take gentle steps in this direction, rather than diving in at the deep end to a platform you do not fully understand and getting yourself into trouble. Most researchers go through the following steps:

  • Watcher: start by signing up to a social media platform like Twitter or LinkedIn and just connecting with and reading from relevant people and accounts. If you choose who you follow carefully and manage your signal:noise ratio by unfollowing less relevant accounts, you can get immediate benefits for your research by efficiently staying on top of the latest developments and funding opportunities in your field. You can also get a lot of benefits already for impact. Start connecting with high-level politicians, journalists and industry leaders who might be able to help you disseminate your research and achieve impacts. Many journalists have their mobile phone number in their profile and many leaders will respond to private messages on social media directly despite the fact that you cannot reach them via letter or email. Start following people you think might benefit from your research and listen into their public conversations and comment, so that you know the language they use and the issues that are resonating with them. When you do meet these people (or people like them) face-to-face you are much more likely to be prepared for the difficult questions and be able to use language that will resonate.

  • Sign-poster: The next step most researchers take is to start sign-posting people to useful resources online. It may be your latest paper, an article you read via social media that morning or something you’re about to send to your PhD students or research group. Now rather than just sending the email, you are repurposing your email and posting the link to the story or paper on social media. Typically people will just copy or paraphrase the title of the piece they are sharing, so these are not your words that can be taken out of context or used against you.

  • Content-generator: The final step that researchers take, typically (and advisably) after spending significant time learning the ropes as a lurker and sign-poster, is to start actually posting their own content based on their research. This is the point at which most opportunities for generating impact occur, but if you’re going to invest the time and energy in generating new content, make sure you’ve got a clear social media strategy so you know that you are using your time wisely.


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