Be a screen star but lose the jazz

March 17, 2006

Displaying your research online is a good way to reach a wide audience. But will the picture of you with your guitar and the flashy backdrop send the right message? Harriet Swain looks at what makes a good website

You've always fancied a jazzy background. And that picture of you in shades with a guitar is a must. After all, in cyberspace you can be anyone you like...

Your institution may disagree. If you're planning on setting up a web page to display your research, you will have to comply with your university's policy on what is acceptable. Some institutions will be much more liberal than others, warns Brian Kelly, UK web focus at UKOLN, the centre of expertise in digital information management. While some institutions will give you a free hand, others will want to vet what you put on the site.

You also have to be aware of your professional reputation, says Christine Hine, senior lecturer in sociology at Surrey University, who is researching the sociology of the world wide web. It is a mistake to think of the web as something completely detached from your professional life, she warns.

She says that it is important to think about your audience. Is your page a professional resource for your academic colleagues or one that includes pictures of your cats?

Jazzy backgrounds are all very well but they may make the content harder to read, which will not be much good for those who are visually impaired. And anything too fancy could cause problems for people with more basic technology.

You need to think about why you are publishing a page, Kelly says. It may be to advertise yourself and to make your peers aware of what you are doing, in which case a simple list of publications and research interests could be enough.

Or you may want your personality to shine through and to add details about your social interests. This will depend onthe department you work in - in an arts department a slightly more off-the-wall web page may be acceptable.

You may also have to comply with the design framework laid down by your institution.

One issue to consider is whether you want to include a photograph - and which photo to use. Women tend to be particularly sensitive about this, although Hine says she finds it is helpful when dealing with people via e-mail whom she has never met face to face. And it means your students remember who you are.

You will also have to consider legal issues such as copyright, defamation and data protection, says Peter Tinson, director of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association. He says you should be careful when discussing information about other people on your page and should not include their contact details without permission.

To find out how to avoid these pitfalls, you need training, either from your institution or by doing one of the Netskills courses run by the Joint Information Systems Committee. This will also help you to ensure that you are using the most up-to-date software.

Will Allen, consultant trainer for Netskills, says you must think about how people read a web page. They may start reading halfway down if they have followed a link. They will also want concise text.

He says it is important to be proficient in HTML, the language used to create web pages, and to think about style only once you have got the HTML structure right.

Seb Schmoller, executive secretary of the Association for Learning Technology, says you must ensure your page makes sense to someone landing from search engines outside your immediate academic world. You will also need to update your web page. Hine warns that old information reflects badly on you.

Schmoller warns that web pages frequently get archived without permission "so though you'll be able to keep your page up to date, you'll not be able to prevent people - including your future boss - from reading what you used to say about yourself".

He also warns of the danger of spam if you include your e-mail address, and recommends using tricks to make your e-mail address less easily read and reused.

You will need to think about how to promote your page once you have set it up. Simply sticking it on a university site is not the best way to get your research known, says Mike McConnell, web team manager at Aberdeen University.

He recommends getting other people to link to your page from their web pages, since search engines such as Google consider the number of links to a site an indication of its value.

On the other hand, Allen advises being careful about the way you offer external links from your own page, as once someone has left your page they may not come back.

In any case, Kelly says, personal home pages are a bit last century. What you really should be looking at is blogging. Blogging allows you to float ideas and receive feedback on them, as well as imparting personal information about your research interests and experience.

If you still prefer the idea of a flashy web page to show off your research, don't get carried away, Hine says. "You are looking for one you hardly notice. It is there to give you the information you need. As soon as you notice it, it's probably not doing its job."

Further information

UKOLN, a centre of expertise in digital information management, providing advice and services to the library, information, education and cultural heritage communities: www.ukoln.ac.uk

Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association: www.ucisa.ac.uk

Netskills internet training service: www.netskills.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Consider your audience

Get training

Learn how to write good HTML

Keep the content simple

Update the page regularly

Get colleagues to link to your page

Comply with the law

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