Digital portraits for academics


Recently, Hans Tilstra was talking about digital twins – online identical models for offline objects. He talked about our personal digital twins, the representations of ourselves online. It is an intriguing idea, but not one that I really buy into.

Our various digital personas are too fragmented to be considered real twins. I think of online personas more as digital portraits. Some are pointillist – search results composed of tiny points of information. Some are abstract – the array of data that retailers collect about you, never fully realised, never really seen. Some, like Instagram, could be self-portraits. Others, like Facebook, may be family portraits.

Of all of these digital portraits, I think that there are three that are vital for any academic:

  • LinkedIn: Among other things, this is the perfect place to build your own personal alumni group. It is your industry portrait.
  • Google Scholar: This is where other researchers are most likely to find your work. It is your intellectual portrait.
  • Your university profile: When industry people, journalists, or other academics find you, they will look for your university profile to establish your bona fides, and find your contact details. It is your calling card.

I’m not saying that you should give up your favourite social media space for just these three. I love Twitter and I’m not giving it up for anything. What I am saying is that I think every academic should actively maintain these three profiles.

LinkedIn – your boardroom portrait

Because these three portraits have three different audiences, you should paint them differently (to stretch the metaphor).

Your LinkedIn profile puts your CV online. It clearly says who you are, what your current position is, your contact details (a much-ignored feature), your work history, your educational history. In your contact details, there is a space to list web pages. I think that you should add your ORCID there. There is other stuff that you can add, but they are the basics. The nice thing about this part of your LinkedIn profile is that it stays relatively stable. Once you’ve set it up, it really only needs to be maintained when you change jobs.

As well as providing you with a place to post your CV, LinkedIn provides you with a place to link with others in a professional capacity. That’s the point of LinkedIn, and it does it very, very well.

I am continually surprised by the number of academics who don’t see the point of linking with their past students. It seems like a no-brainer to me. You teach your students so that they can gain employment in the industry of their choice – the industry that your teaching is most relevant to, and that your research relates to.

Why wouldn’t you link with people who, in five years or so, may become middle managers in the very industry that you want to connect with? Students are hardest to track when they graduate. They lose their student email. They often move house / city / country. They gain jobs. They change jobs. It’s almost as if they’re hiding from you.

Next time you are looking for an industry speaker, search your personal alumni on LinkedIn. The next time you have an expert speaker who might be of interest to industry, let your LinkedIn network know.

Other people suggested some interesting uses when I asked on Twitter.

Just keep this in mind: on LinkedIn, nobody reads your publications.

Google Scholar – your book jacket portrait

On Google Scholar, everybody reads your publications (you wish). To be more precise, people who are on Google Scholar are looking for publications. Make it easy for them to find your publications.

My first refereed publication, as listed on Google Scholar.

By creating a Google Scholar profile, you put yourself one giant step ahead of anybody who doesn’t have a Google Scholar profile. See how my name and Ron Van Schyndel’s are underlined in the screenshot of the reference above? That means that our names are links to our profiles. On our profiles, you can find all our publications in one easy place. You can sort them by year (to find the most recent stuff) and by citation count (to find the most popular stuff). You can link through to who has cited each work and to see those works. It is an intellectual stalking paradise.

Maintaining your profile isn’t automatic. Don’t accept Google’s suggestion to automatically add works to your profile. You need to do that yourself, with judgement. Again, this isn’t a big ask. Check it whenever you publish something. For most of us, that isn’t often (or not often enough).

I maintain a Google Scholar profile in preference to or ResearchGate because it puts my publications where people go looking for publications. I think that the percentage of academics who search Google Scholar is much higher than those who use and ResearchGate. I understand that those networks are valuable for the academics who are active there – I’d just prefer to play the percentages.

ImpactStory provide a handy guide to setting up a Google Scholar profile. Ann Wil-Harzing has published a useful post on some of the more specific features of Google Scholar.

University profile – your business card portrait

Finally, there is the poor, benighted university profile page. Some universities don’t give their staff or PhD researchers a web page. I find that extraordinary – why would they not want to advertise the expertise of their researchers? Then I look at the wasteland of profile pages that do exist, and I know why

Some universities do this better than others, but generally institutional profile pages are terrible. The information is often generic (department, email address and little else) or fatally out of date. Some universities automatically stuff them with information that nobody wants to read (like publication lists without links to the publications), while important matters like research and supervisory interests wallow. Taken together, university profiles all to often present as sad, forgotten relics of some bygone age when somebody cared.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t maintain your own university profile page. When they are well done, they provide a clear picture of the person behind the CV and the publications. They describe your research interests in ways that attract the interest of potential research students or future employees and collaborators. They link to your CV and your publications (if the university doesn’t provide those in a reasonable manner). They can list your contact details and your social media links. The institutional space that’s provided presents you as an (emerging or otherwise) authority in your field, and oftentimes as an employee at that university. Ensure that your university profile contains your ORCID identifier (can you sense a theme here…?).

A university profile page says that you are a member of the university community. That counts for something, and shouldn’t be thrown away lightly. Don’t let your university profile page shame you – as far as the interface lets you, make it shine!

Maintaining your image

These three profiles don’t need much maintenance, but they do need some. I recommend that you tidy up your university profile once a year (maybe just before your birthday), and check the other two at the same time.

In addition to that, you are going to want to update your LinkedIn profile when you get a new job, and update your Google Scholar profile when you publish something new. Each time you do that, check on the other two, as well.

I can already hear some people saying that they also have social profiles and academic profiles and ORCID profiles and…when will they every get any work done? To my mind, these three are mandatory. All the rest are optional – you put as much time into them as you find worthwhile. But these three – I feel these three are the ones that people are looking at. So, make sure they work for you!