The researcher’s digital afterlife



Recently we lost a friend to suicide.

His death was tragic and shocking to those who knew him, but Linkedin had no idea it had happened. He must have created an account there some time back and never got around to making contact with me. Now Linkedin keeps telling me to connect with him.

To the inhuman search engines deep inside the Linkedin server farm we are a perfect match. We went to the same university and have some of the same employers on our resumes. The machines at Linkedin have no idea that my human, feeling self is freshly reminded of his death every time his profile appears on my suggestion list.

t got me thinking – what happens when I die? The other day Thesis whisperer jnr, aged 10, had to do an assignment on ‘digital footprints’. He googled himself and the hits he got were, of course, mostly me. He came home bursting with pride that I had the biggest digital footprint of all the parents in his class. Will he feel so happy about that when I am gone? Will he have to face my ghostly presence while he tries to go about his everyday life?

I wondered aloud about this on Twitter and Danya Hodgetts, sport manager, lecturer and researcher, told me about her preparations and kindly agreed to write a post on it. The post ended up being about more than social media as you will see. It’s not the most pleasant of topics, but surely a necessary one for all researchers as we have Responsibilities. Inger Mewburn

It’s not a pleasant thought thinking about your inevitable demise. Yes, I’m talking about the actual afterlife, not the far happier time of graduation. While wills and the necessity to have your affairs in order is nothing new, our online presence gives cause for further consideration.

What happens to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other electronic presences when you die?

Personally, the thought of my Facebook page becoming a memorial is horrifying. I have recently been updating my will and decided to appoint a Digital Executor. I’m not going into the details of this, but this is a trusted person with technical know how. My executor knows who this person is and they will receive my laptop, should the inevitable eventuate. They have a hardcopy of my key passwords and logins.

When I started writing this post, that was all I was going to talk about. However, as I started writing, it got me thinking about more than just my website and Twitter accounts. Sure I’d like these loose ends taken care of, but as a (fledgeling) researcher, these are just a means to an end.

As with with all things research, I’ve found that I’m not the first person to ponder this. Just last month, the Genomic Repairman wrote on the same issue. While I readily confess to not understanding very much of what he was talking about, the underlying issue was that a researcher had passed away unexpectedly and the custody of their research (in this case cell cultures) hadn’t been determined.

I contacted the Genomic Repairman for some further information and he kindly replied. He said that his PhD mentor would assume control of his samples because the project is being conducted in his lab. As far as he is aware there is no mandate by universities or funding bodies in this circumstance. The lab where Genomic Repairman works is in the process of transferring samples to their lab from a retiring professor and he commented that these deals are brokered informally.

This covers the tangible legacies of physical research, but this is an issue everyone should consider.

  • So if I come to an untimely end, what of my research, which (for me) is just beginning?
  • Those partly written articles – are they to be finished by someone else?
  • That data that needs analysing – who should have it?
  • There’s more questions than answers here. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, experiences and plans. What does your digital afterlife look like?