On being a “digital academic”

It's me
It’s me

A colleague asked me why I “left science” last year. I don’t really feel like I have; my dayjob involves writing about the amazing research and related goings-on at the place where I completed my PhD. I still feel connected to science; I’m just not at the bench.

Perhaps I’m lying to myself, but I’ll run with it.

While I may not be a practicing academic, many friends and colleagues are. As I now (and, for the last 15-odd years, always have) spend a lot of time online and with social networking, I watched a Google Hangout that was run by jobs.ac.uk today: Being a successful Digital Academic.

People often fear social networks, but I’ve defended them before and will continue to do so. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without this blog, Twitter and the time I’ve spent on them, as well as the people I’ve met through them.

The hangout contained lots of useful tips for academics who are or might want to venture into the world of online chat, promotion and networking. You can find my notes here on Google Docs and the Piirus blog, too.

Jump to:


Information overload?

Social Media usage is very personal; how much you engage affects how it impacts your life.

ECRs are in a good place to do so but can worry about intrusion. Set up good housekeeping rules – we’re already overwhelmed by email etc.!

  • Look at mailing lists and notifications; offload some things you’re not using.
  • Unsubscribe, not just delete. (e.g. Unroll.me).
  • Use apps’ inbuilt notification options. Choose frequency & type
  • Make use of Tweetdeck, scoopit for curation & management/overview
  • IFTTT: recipes to stop duplication. Simplifying processes
  • Plan your day. Don’t let notifications drive you. Go silent/block mode when necessary for writing & ‘main’ work to minimise intrusion


Visitors vs. Residents

How to move from one to the other in a digital sense?

Originally a reaction to an immigrants/natives idea; “older people will never get the tech as well as kids” – this doesn’t seem to be true.

Helps us think how we engage.

Motivation to engage, rather than functionality. Visitors are on a scale/continuum rather than 2 different people.

  • Visitors dip in to find a tool to do a job once, leave, and don’t leave a ‘social trace’
  • Residents think of the web as a series of connected spaces; take part in discourse etc.

As academics, what means we feel the need to be visible? What advantages/disadvantages are there?

Collaboration etc. vs. always-on work & time-sinks

Simple way to understand how people use the web & exist on it.



Digital residents leave traces; can we learn to accept & manage this?

Visitors do still leave traces, but not social ones. Privacy can be tricky – people can be resident personally, professionally, or both. Striking a deal between visibility+profile and “how much you give yourself to the web”

Decide how comfortable you are engaging with platforms like twitter and facebook, where their business model is selling your identity as a kind of product.

Most people are comfortable with compromises because of benefits but is worth thinking about.

What aspects of yourself are you selling and in what sense; how much are you comfortable with?

Read more on “branding”


How does Piirus work and what’s its value?

Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Researchgate – why Piirus?

Piirus “A dating website but with less romance and more research collaboration”

It grew out of Warwick uni work. It’s very light touch; easy to create profiles inc on mobile. Doesn’t try to make you do things other than put you in touch with other researchers.

You can connect to other profiles to avoid duplication.

Other sites look at pubs, past history, achievements. Piirus focuses on keywords you choose to describe current & future research directions; collaboration interest

Researchers need to connect across boundaries (interdisciplinary, international etc.)

Young researchers don’t already have those and many will value opportunity to do so online.

Partnered with jobs.ac.uk (hangout hosts). Part of the research community, growing since Aug 2014.

International connections – used to be managed by flying; cost equity issue.

Connection -> message -> email? Twitter? Just continue the conversation in the way you feel is best.


How do we answer people who ask what the point is or how we do it?

Every group has close-knit stakeholders, so identifying yours is crucial. It’s like going to conferences.

Identify the key people you want to speak to who have the value/knowledge to push forward your research agendas. So here we’re just identifying the relevant networks within social media.

There are many, so you need to look across them all and identify the groups of people you need to find.

  1. Get online!
  2. Become familiar with the networks
  3. Find out the specific ways to develop those institutional networks

People aware of anthropological networks can find this easier. Inc. “productive lurking”!


Which digital tool/platform have you found most useful in your academic career and why?


“When I find a webpage I add it, or an email with something useful for work. It means I don’t have to have separate file structures everywhere because Evernote tags keep them all together”.

It’s not platform dependent, and it’s free!


Twitter http://www.twitter.com

In a visibility/networking sense. “It can be great for disorganised people!” (everyone recommends)

Also for people who are ‘alone’ in their research field in their physical location/institution. Finding people online interested in those things.

Try following people you’ve met at conferences; a cluster of 10 can be enough to branch out. Create ties to people with similar interests/fields.

Connections form to people you wouldn’t otherwise connect with; better than email & more efficient than going to all the conferences (hashtags for conferences you can’t attend, too).

Different clients available for phones, viewing tweets – Twitter app is fine for basics.

Scheduling & aggregation tools (Tweetdeck, Buffer, Hootsuite) more useful for more professional-type users. Depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Try to prioritise in a way that means you still enjoy it!

It’s for learning as well as communication; through following trends and bringing ideas to place of work, can enhance academic profile.


Mendeley http://www.mendeley.com/

Part social network (~3m users) part LinkedIn, part massive database, part reference manager. Free version!

Introduces you to resources, discussions and papers that you might not pick up in conventional database searches.

e.g. international students might want to pick up on what’s going on in their home countries. ‘Western’ databases & Google scholar won’t pick them up. Mendeley adjusts by input and has its own trends, hot topics and analytics.

It measures how long people spend reading papers etc. so can help identify new themes & who’s interested.

Repositories build up. It’s where reference manager should be.


WordPress https://wordpress.com/

“As a fundamentally lazy researcher, I don’t like social media taking up most of my time. So I choose blogging, and wordpress. It interlinks between all the social media – you only really need to put your content in one place to get it across a variety of networks.”

Publishing posts on WordPress, you can set it to automatically share on your social networks e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr

Store all your ideas in one place; enough space to articulate things in depth to get the point across and receive feedback through comments.

When you don’t have enough time to embed social media into your workload!


Pocket https://getpocket.com/

Curation can really expand your audience – e.g. @catspyjamasNZ

Treating your twitter feed like a radio station e.g. useful links a few times a day/week

Flipboard for blogs, other curated lists, taking links of interest to Pocket then broadcasting it. Pocket has a button that sends the link over, then you can go in and send them out.

Pocket strips out ads, makes things easier to read when you have time to go back over what you skimmed and found interesting.

It’s timed so you can set it up to broadcast & means you’re not actually spending time e.g. on Twitter.


What impact can your digital reputation, as an academic, actually have?

Private vs. public, positive vs. negative, personal vs. professional development

What’s the one thing you’ve done online that got the most positive attention?

  • “Come up with an idea, then talk about it online” – rewarding to throw out an idea then discuss. Can really open approach to online engagement.

School/uni trains us to “work on something until it’s finished” and only show the ‘world’ (tutor) then. But what’s interesting about being online is the opportunity to be part of discourse and push forwards. PhD training can really hammer this home.

You can put a notion out and see evolution of ideas through others’ input.

Some people think “if you blog an idea, you’re giving it away” – can be the opposite, you can claim it as your own, and reduce likelihood of people stealing it. Not tied to institutional structures in some cases.

Academic publishing can be so insular and “not-fun”! University shouldn’t be about that?

[open access? Figshare?]


  • Overcoming fear of failure

Often young researchers don’t feel they can speak up on issues they are actually experts in. If you’re happy with someone from a paper to interview you for a paper/blog/magazine, why not take control of the message?

Share it yourself, address impostor syndrome.

Evidence for academics: there’s another way. Mention for LSE Impact Blog (social sciences).

Social media & blogging can get you in to conversations & awareness/networks – demonstrates knowledge and experience. Extending normal academic activity for recognition.

Social media isn’t separate from academia!


  • Authentic and open blogging

Opens opportunities for collaboration & exposure.

Interviews, books, papers, general conversation. Keeping in touch.

Academic interactions can be more female-friendly than the mainstream, with less attack and ‘trolling’. Can help to have gender-neutral avatars and nicknames (if comfortable with doing so).


  • Accessing closed communities

Political lobbying; getting people who wouldn’t normally, to speak with you. Contentious subjects etc – social media can provide avenues.

REF & research impact; connecting ‘with your people’ (as social scientists) and governmental orgs, +NGOs. Practising policy. Designing surveys that work.

Input into our research design from the people who are actually affected [cf patient engagement, lobby groups, citizen science?]


  • Co-authorship that wouldn’t have otherwise happened

Can create publications for which there is a need, but people haven’t been connected & had the necessary conversations – amplifying conventional research metrics. Papers are hard to ‘market’ but social networks can really help.


Are people who aren’t tweeting/blogging etc. at a disadvantage?

Conventional metrics vs altmetrics

Altmetrics are new (since 2012) – help people identify what’s going to be a hot topic. People not using it are more at a disadvantage in terms of staying in touch. Can help us keep at the forefront in an overcrowded academic market.

The metrics will become more important. Unis traditionally only measured journal articles as output, altmetrics might begin to factor in more.

It shows us where the conversations happen, and where people are talking about you – geographical data on research impact/interest.

People do want to know this!



Key message from the discussion?

  • Make sure you engage with your public, especially social scientists – where’s the trajectory of the REF taking us? Impact on society, people; becoming humanised. How will you convey that in the context of your own research & push your institution/dept/community to adopt that mindset?
  • Use digital media to consume what others are doing and keep in touch with them. Two-way process; what you put out and what you take in learning about other people. The social aspect.
  • Interesting ideas and opinions travel; don’t worry about selling yourself, brand, metrics – see the web as a place where you can engage with people to push forward your ideas and do your work. Don’t get too hung up on metrics!
  • Have a go at writing a blogpost. It’s not that scary – reflective practice, allowing you to think about what you’re doing. If a journalist were asking (what’s it about, why, who’s it impacting, when and where) – put it into simple terms and you can transform academic work that makes sense to a small group into something that makes sense to lots of people. Important for the REF to push our research out further and see what it can do.

Visit jobs.ac.uk Careers Advice pages


Relevant articles

Hoping you found this useful!

3 thoughts on “On being a “digital academic”

  1. Pingback: How I got back to blogging? | I can be digital

  2. Pingback: How and why I resumed blogging? | Digital & Internationalised Education

  3. Pingback: Online Presence | PhDanger

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