Thursday, February 8, 2018

Should early-career researchers make their own website?

TL;DR: Yes.

For a while, I have been thinking about whether or not to make my own website. I could see some advantages, but at the same time, I was wondering how it would be perceived. After all, I don’t think any of my superiors at work have their own website, so why should I?

To see what people actually think, I made a poll on Twitter. It received some attention and generated some interesting discussions and many supportive comments (you can read them directly by viewing the responses to the poll I linked above). In this blogpost, I would like to summarise the arguments that were brought up (they were mainly pro-website).

But first, and without any further ado, here are the results:

The results are pretty clear, so – here it is: It’s still a work-in-progress, so I would be happy to get any feedback!

It is noteworthy that there are some people who did think that it’s narcissistic for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to create their own website. It would have been interesting to get some information about the demographics of these 5%, and their thoughts behind their vote. If you are an ECR who is weighing up the pros and cons of creating a website, then, as Leonid Schneider pointed out, you may want to think about whether you would want to positively impress someone who judges you for creating an online presence. Either way, I decided that the benefits outweigh any potential costs.

Several people have pointed out in response to the twitter poll that a website is only as narcissistic as you make it. This leads to the question: what comes off as narcissistic? I can imagine that there are many differences in opinion on this. Does one focus on one’s research only? Or include some fun facts about oneself? I decided to take the former approach, for the reason that people who google me are probably more interested in my research rather than my political opinion or to find out whether I’m a cat or a dog person.

In general, people who spend more time on self-promotion than on actually doing things that they brag they can do are not very popular. I would rather not self-promote at all than come off as someone with a head full of hot air. Ideally, I would want to let my work speak for itself and for colleagues to judge me based on the quality of my work. This, of course, requires that people can access my work – which is where the website comes in. Depending on how you design your website, this is literally what it is: A way for people to access your work, so they can make their own opinion about its quality. 

In principle, universities create websites for their employees. However, things can get complicated, especially for ECRs. ECRs often change affiliations, and sometimes go for months without having an official job. For example, I refer to myself as a “post-doc in transit”: My two-year post-doc contract at the University of Padova went until March last year, and I’m currently on a part-time short-term contract at the University of Munich until I will (hopefully) get my own funding. In the meantime, I don’t have a website at the University of Munich, only an out-of-date and incomplete website at the University of Padova, and a still-functioning and rather detailed and up-to-date website at the Centre of Cognition and its Disorders (where I did my PhD in 2011-2014; I’m still affiliated with the CCD as an associate investigator until this year, so probably this site will disappear or stop being updated rather soon). Several people pointed out, in the responses to my twitter poll, that they get a negative impression if they google a researcher and only find an incomplete university page: this may come across as laziness or not caring.

What kind of information should be available about an ECR? First, their current contact details. I somehow thought that my email address should be findable for everyone who looks for it, but come to think of it, I have had people contact me through researchgate or twitter and saying that they couldn’t find my email address.

Let’s suppose that Professor Awesome is looking to hire a post-doc, and has heard that you’re looking for a job and have all the skills that she needs. She might google you, only to find an out-dated university website with an email address that doesn’t work anymore, and in order to contact you, she would need to find you on researchgate (where she would probably need to have an account to contact you), or search for your recent publications, find one where you are a corresponding author, and hope that the listed email address is still valid. At some stage, Professor Awesome might give up and look up the contact details of another ECR who fits the job description.

Admittedly, I have never heard of anyone receiving a job offer via email out of the blue. But one can think of other situations where people might want to contact you with good news: Invitations to review, to become a journal editor, to participate in a symposium, to give a talk at someone else’s department, to collaborate, to give an interview about your research, or simply to discuss some aspects of your work. These things are very likely to increase your chances of getting a position in Professor Awesome’s lab. For me, it remains an open question whether having a website will actually result in any of these things, but I will report back in one year with my anecdotal data on this.

Second, having your own website (rather than relying on your university to create one for you) gives you more control of what people find out about you. In my case, a dry list of publications would probably not bring across my dedication to Open Science, which I see as a big part of my identity as a scientist.

Third, a website can be useful tool to link to your work: not just a list of publications, but also links to full texts, data, materials and analysis scripts. One can even link to unpublished work. In fact, this was one of my main goals while creating the website. In addition to a list of publications on the CV section, I included information about projects that I’m working on or that I have worked on in the past. This was a good reason to get myself organised. First, I sorted my studies by an overarching research question (which has helped me to figure out: What am I actually doing?). Then, for each study, I added a short description (which has helped me to figure out what I have achieved so far), and links to the full text, data and materials (which helped me to verify that I did make this information publicly accessible, which I always tell everyone else that they should do). 

Creating the website is therefore a useful tool for myself to keep track of what I'm doing. People on twitter have pointed out in their comments that it can also be useful for others: not only for the fictional Professor Awesome who is only waiting to make you a job offer, but also, for example, for students who would like to apply for a PhD at your department and are interested to get more information about what people in the department are doing.

I have included information about ongoing projects, published articles, and projects-on-hold. Including information about unpublished projects could be controversial: given that the preprints are presented alongside with published papers, unsuspecting readers might get confused and mistake an unpublished study for a peer-reviewed paper. However, I think that the benefits of making data and materials for unpublished studies outweighs the cost. Some of these papers are unpublished for practical reasons (e.g., because I ran out of resources to conduct a follow-up experiment). Even if an experiment turned out to be unpublishable because I made some mistakes in the experimental design, other people might learn from my mistakes in conducting their own research. This is one of the main reasons why I created the website: To make all aspects of all of my projects fully accessible.

As with everything, there are pros and cons with creating a personal website. A con is that some people might perceive you as narcissistic. There are many pros, though: Especially as an ECR, you provide a platform with information about your work which will remain independently of your employment status. You increase your visibility, so that others can contact you more easily. You can control what others can find out about you. And, finally, you can provide information about your work that, for whatever reason, does not come across in your publication list. So, in conclusion: I recommend to ECRs to make their own website.

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