Sunday, June 24, 2012

8 reasons why online reputation building can give academics a competitive advantage

 NOTE: The piece below is entirely tactical and does not enter into theoretical debates regarding academic blogging. I highly recommend that you also read Mimi Thi Nguyen’s wonderful blog post, Against Efficiency Machines, as a companion piece. Nguyen asks some thought-provoking questions and raises valid concerns regarding academic blogging. (updated Jan 2014)

I recently read a fantastic blog post that argued that traditional resumes and formal CVs have been replaced by a revolutionary  Automatic CV generator which has ushered in a new age of personal branding.

I couldn’t agree more.

Thinking strategically about your online reputation is not about style over substance. Far from it. It’s about believing in your work, recognising its value and understanding that it deserves an audience. For my part, I’m tired of academics in the humanities underestimating the value of the work they do!

So, have you Googled yourself lately?  These days it’s not egotistical, it’s essential. Your digital footprint does not need to be defined solely by others. You can take simple steps to proactively contribute to this space. Generally this will involve developing a content platform (such as a blog) and using social media to build an audience. It's an active process that involves both content creation and relationship building and one which I believe has the potential to give early career academics a competitive advantage.

8  reasons why you should be investing in your online reputation

1. Connect with a community of people who care about the same thing that you do.
No matter how niche your research area you will find others online that share your interest. It’s a great way to make new contacts, network on a global scale and embrace the Long Tail.

2. Allow people get to know you better (and find you more easily).

Self-publishing to a global audience is a great way to bring your research interests, personality and values to life. It allows people to see what you stand for far more effectively than a formal CV. You can even build a personal brand around yourself and your research. Not only will you establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic, you will become easier to find on search engines such as Google.

3. Improve your writing skills.

Blogging is very different to academic writing, even when you are writing for academic audiences. Whether a blog post is a well-developed idea or a quick thought-point it will generally be quite short (ideally under 500 words, most certainly under 1,000 words). This flexibility allows you to play with ideas and experiment with different writing styles. The prospect of building an audience for your research challenges you to communicate ideas in more engaging ways. The need for brevity and clarity poses a challenge to express complex ideas simply.

4. Refine ideas, collect intelligence and collaborate.
Unlike a journal article, blogging has an immediate feedback loop. For many academics, this is the single worst thing about blogging. In my mind, it’s also the best thing. While a terrifying prospect at first,  sharing your research across disciplines and non academic audiences offers several benefits. Engaging in a public forum means you are accountable for your ideas. Responding to challenges and feedback can help you strengthen arguments, refine ideas and even inspire new ones. This process is what Maria Popova (author of the wonderful Brainpickings blog) calls networked knowledge and combatorial creativity. Chance favours the connected mind...

5. Build a permanent platform from which you can promote your work.

Creating and maintaining a presence online is a long-term strategy.  It’s not about promoting a single journal article or your current research project; it’s about building a dynamic community that you can leverage for ongoing projects.

6. Increase the number of times your journal articles are cited.
In 2011, digital humanities researcher, Melissa Terras (@melissaterras), conducted an experiment to test the impact of blogging and tweeting about her research papers. Terras made all 26 of her academic papers publicly available and profiled a series of these projects using her blog and social media. Within 24 hours, this promotional activity resulted in an an average of 70 downloads per paper. Quite extraordinary.

7. Explore life as a public intellectual.
Academia is about sharing knowledge and I believe that scholars have a social responsibility to engage with broad audiences and contribute to public debate. This is an easy statement to make - the reality can be quite daunting! An online platform can allow you to take tentative steps in this direction and begin to explore the philosophy and process of public engagement.

8. Erode the power that academic publishers have over your reputation. 
The time lag between writing a journal article and getting it published can extend between 6 months and 2 years. Richard Price, the founder of has rightly recognised that “2 years is roughly how long it used to take to send a letter abroad 300 years ago”.  Price is committed to reducing the academic ‘credit gap' that results when scholars are unable to capitalise on benefits of their most recent research projects for job and grant applications. While citations are a key metric used to evaluate the impact of research I believe they will be increasingly supplemented by real time metrics, such as the number of times content is viewed, shared, liked and commented on.

In addition, the web is all about open attribution.  I believe that publicly funded research should be accessible free of charge and the more I learn about academic publishing the more my mind boggles. The structure of paywalls is completely at odds with increasing pressures to communicate with public audiences which I have written about here and here. If deliverables and expectations of academics are to change, institutional structures and metrics used to measure research impact must evolve to accommodate.

3 reasons why you are not investing in your online reputation

1. People will steal my ideas.
Your ideas have value. They are not ‘free’. When you communicate ideas online you don’t earn money but you do earn authority. As an academic you think for a living and are likely to be coming up with new ideas all the time. More ideas than you can possibly investigate in detail. Communicating some of these insights can establish you as a thought leader in your area. The best academic bloggers exude generosity and abundance while retaining key elements of their intellectual property. This process is a careful balancing act. Academics who do this well include digital humanist Dan Cohen (@dancohen), political scientist Corey Robin (@coreyrobin) and pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian (@femfreq). Museum curators (and innovators) Nina Simon (@ninaksimon) and Seb Chan (@sebchan) also do this brilliantly.

2. People will criticise my ideas.
Academics are used to critique from their peers, but blogging presents the risk of misinformation and misinterpretation by a much broader (often unqualified) audience. The intersection of academia and mass media is a complex space, often defined by conflicting communication objectives. I am planning a future blog post on this important issue however, in the meantime, let me say one thing.  You are not alone. Consumer brands and public figures also operate within this environment and have developed strategies to guide responses to unjustified criticism and uniformed comments (strategies that I will share in another future blog post). But if critique results in you reviewing assumptions and improving your work? Lucky you. After all. Isn't it more important to understand the world a little better than it is to win an argument?

3. I don’t have time for this.
Bravo. You got me. Academics are some of the hardest working professionals I know. Like any investment, building an online reputation has an opportunity cost and the purpose of this particular blog post is to outline potential benefits so you can decide what is right for you. It's not going to be the right approach for everyone. To succeed, I think it has to be something you believe in and enjoy doing.

My next blog post will outline how to develop your own personal digital marketing plan based on what you want to get out of the process and the time you have available.


  1. Thanks so much for this! I especially enjoyed your suggestions that blogging can be a social responsibility for academics, as well as a way to try out new ideas.

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  3. Glad you found the article helpful. There are more to come! I agree - the personal/ ethical/ intellectual benefits of blogging can be really powerful. And these benefits don't require an audience at all! Not only is the blog a great learning tool for me (providing a structure for inquiry and research outside my specific PhD topic) it acts as an academic diary of sorts that records a range of musings that I might otherwise lose. I often find myself revisiting old posts and developing ideas further.

  4. I googled myself recently and found that I have a name nemesis - someone who is similar in age to me but not an academic. Unfortunately they show up with mugshot pictures from a DUI and 'rate my hotness' websites they've signed up to. Sincerely hope when I apply for jobs later this year my nemesis is not confused for me! It's really made me think more about increasing my own profile though (partly to push her stuff further down the results), and a lot of your suggestions make sense.

    1. A name nemesis. I love it! This is a common problem actually. I was going to talk about it in a future post. When I first started blogging I Googled myself too. ALL of the results on the first page were for 'Betty Jo Hawkins'... a famous female wrestler during the 1950s. I know what you are thinking. AMAZING. I think I was more thrilled than annoyed. There are definitely some SEO (search engine optimisation) tricks to climb up the list. Academics don't generally use LinkedIn but, dear lord, Google LOVES it. I don't have an account yet but this could be a powerful tool. It shoots up the search rankings fast. Since the mysterious Google algorithm takes social updates into account now - Twitter generally shoots up pretty quickly. Of course, Google+ profiles are doing (suspiciously) well at the moment too. You should also purchase your own name as a url if you can. I've got a whole post coming up on SEO tips & tricks - probably late July since I am starting from the basics. :-)

  5. Hi Joe, I am actually teaching this stuff in my PhD class later this semester. May I use in the class? It is really good.

    Kind regards,


    1. Of course! Happy to share. You might also like to take a look at a slide-share presentation I delivered to WA PhD students last year -

    2. I've also written about the importance of thinking strategically about your digital footprint to ensure time & effort are directed most effectively...
      ... and time management

      All the best!