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How important is web-presence to researchers? How does its importance vary by fields? (My interest is STEM, theory in particular)

I noticed that there is a pretty large variation in amount of web-presence even within a single field (I will use theoretical computer science/related math as an example). There seems to be 3 different levels of web-presence:

  • [High] Very active member of various internet tools (MathOverflow, cstheory, blogs, G+, etc) usually accompanied by a clear homepage with all the [Medium] info.

  • [Medium] A clear up-to date website that provides a clean bibliography/CV (usually with links to self-hosted pdfs), a repository of course-notes and teaching information, and list of students.

  • [Low] No personal website (or extremely outdated website).

Increasing your web-presence usually requires effort. Should you invest this effort? Or are you just wasting research time?

If you enjoy being active on the internet (so it is not a cost for you, but maybe a time-sync) is there any danger to having a high web presence?

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    Important for what? For him/her: acquiring contacts/collaborators, presenting/advertising ones publications or research themes, for any formal procedures? Or for others: easy access to lecture notes or main papers in a certain topic? While the issue is important (and also of my interest), I guess it may be hard to answer it in a meaningful way. – Piotr Migdal Mar 6 '12 at 20:25
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    @PiotrMigdal - I have a feeling the OP was hoping to have those distinctions addressed in the answers. – eykanal Mar 6 '12 at 20:27
  • @PiotrMigdal Good point, I was ambiguous in language. I really meant for him/her, since the benefit for others is more obvious to me. However, eykanal is right in that I am interested in discussion of the various potential benefits you list and how they compare. – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 6 '12 at 20:47
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    Artem, and one more question - are you interested more for a young researcher (<=postdoc) or a more established? – Piotr Migdal Mar 7 '12 at 8:24
  • I might be stating the obvious, but it might be important to emphasize "quality" web-based presence. Some people are not aware of the importance of good social media practices, and the ensuing 'presence' is more harmful than helpful. – Brian P Jun 21 '14 at 12:16
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The short answer, at least in theoretical computer science, is yes. Especially pre-tenure.

The Coin of the Realm in academia is fame. Hiring and promotion decisions are based primarily on the perceptions of your impact by leaders in the research community. Those intellectual leaders must know who you are, they must know what you do, and they must think that what you do is excellent. This is precisely why it's so important to network, network, network — go to conferences, visit other departments, talk to visitors, ask questions, answer questions, go to lunch, drink beer, play pool/golf/frisbee/Settlers of Catan, race go-karts, exchange business cards, all that stuff. Having a visible online presence is just another form of networking.

Similarly, if you want to attract good students, they have to know who you are, they have to know what you do, and they have to think what you do is interesting.

Similarly, if your work is not freely and easily accessible on the web, it is much less likely to be cited than freely accessible work of comparable quality.

To give some personal examples, I have good reason to believe that these web pages were a significant factor in my academic job search and even my tenure case, and this stuff definitely helped me get promoted. I expect that these pages similarly helped Suresh, and these pages similarly helped David.

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    I never considered the ease of access to publications as motivation (and potential increase in citations). It certainly is nice when you use google scholar and up pops the pdf for the paper. Also it is definitely nice when you have a scholars complete work all bundled up in a nice website (or easily accessible CV). – Andy W Mar 6 '12 at 22:32
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    Thanks for the awesome answer! (In particular the personal experience of you, Suresh, and David... I was actually not away of those) – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 7 '12 at 0:27
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In my opinion having an up-to-date website is very important. This way people will find out about your papers and what you are working on. It can also help to attract students. It also helps when you're teaching as you can put frequently requested information there and save yourself the hassle of having to reply to hundreds of emails.

In my experience, maintaing a website is not that much effort either.

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I think it also depends on the position of the researcher. For instance, a computer scientist who has a permanent research position, publishes one paper a year in a top conference, and doesn't care about the publicity does not need to have an important web presence.

On the other hand, a postdoc who is looking for a job knows that every time he sends his CV somewhere, one of the first reflex from the recruiter is to Google his name. So, in this case, it's quite important to have a good presence, and to have an updated webpage, in particular with papers accepted but not published yet.

About the maintenance, as mentioned the other answers, maintaining a website is not particularly demanding, especially if it's quite simple. However, maintaining a blog can be quite complicated, especially because having an non updated blog is probably worse than not having any blog at all. As for G+/SE, I guess the investment is worth the return from the community.

Concerning the danger of a high web-presence, well, obviously there is the risk that some "private" information might be connected to a public profile. For instance, I have a flickr account with pictures that, although not particularly shameful, I wouldn't like a potential employer or a student to see. Of course, my account is under a pseudonym, but that's the same pseudonym that I can use on other services (such as twitter), and maybe at some point I will refer to my twitter account from my G+ account, that maybe I will refer from my SE account, where I use my real name. But I guess that's the risk with the Internet in general: if it's out there, it has to be considered as public. There is a similar argument for opinions or ideas you could have a site such as Academia SE and that could be later on taken out of context and used against you.

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An Internet presence

  • facilitates collaboration (via Google),
  • attracts prospective student attention (Google, Twitter), and
  • informs their decision about whether to come (Web page. be sure to say where your lab alumni have gone & to give lots of hat tips to everyone who has passed through),
  • informs funding agencies / grant reviewers about how well you disseminate, both scientifically and to voters / your community, how many careers you've assisted with your previous grants, etc. (Web page)
  • social media lets you share the papers you think are important & to learn what your peers are reading (Twitter is especially good for this.) If you are in a small university this is like extending the size of your group.
  • certainly takes time and trades off with research and scientific publication productivity.
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You might find some interesting answers to this question on Brian Kelly's UK Web Focus blog — for example one recent post talks about how links on the web can enhance access to your published papers.

Another place to look is the altmetrics movement, which is developing new ways to measure the quality of a researcher's work other than just citation counts.

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It's a good question Artem. Establishing a good system such that your research can be known to other researchers in your field (or even in other fields) seems to me the way to go. The main problem I see is for those of us that do not work in fields where the hiring people are themselves interested in having a web presence. Most cancer researchers do not seem to care much about having one. Few have a website for their group and many of those that do don't seem to care much about it. Twitter and blogs are almost unheard of for experimentalists. They don't use them much and don't expect you to have one. I wish I could say that the new generation is a lot more adept but that doesn't seem to be my experience with the biology grad students and postdocs I know.

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The only presence that the vast majority of researchers give significant thought to is their presence in the literature. Most labs view web presence as a way to inform the community about their work, and as a way to attract new students, but that's about it. This purpose is served by a pretty simple site, which includes:

  • Basic info (name, broad research interests, contact info)
  • Recent research projects
  • Names of lab members (graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates, technicians, etc.)
  • Recent publications

For professors who teach often, having a "teaching" section is very helpful, but remember to pull down things like answer keys and test solutions after the semester is over, unless you want future students to see those things.

You can do more and it will look nice, but investing in any site more complex than that has a pretty low payoff.

  • While it is true that this is probably the case for many groups, I think it is (as JeffE says) a horrible idea to not maintain a good web presence, especially in a medium career stage. – xLeitix Feb 26 '14 at 15:44
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The web is everywhere and if you would like to be known, you need to have a strong presence on it. Anyone who is curious about you, will "Google" you and you must have control over what comes up.

There are four key players in creating a solid web presence: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. Each site should link back to your website and your website should link to each service. I suggest maintaining public professional accounts and private personal ones to keep your presence prisitine.

As for the website, a simple 3-4 page site will suffice or you could have one very long page with headings to separate the sections and quality content. There are many content generation tools to assist with this such as http://www.layzilla.com/ or http://www.blended-html.com

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