Secret shoppers ‘pimp’ academics’ online profiles

Australian university seeks to improve researchers’ digital identities. But does this risk excessive uniformity?

October 20, 2016
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Academics are often being told why and how they should keep up appearances online through social media and web profiles – or sometimes even that the whole endeavour is probably a narcissistic waste of time.

But if, as some claim, careers and grants can turn on a good online presence, should universities themselves stage an intervention to help make digitally invisible scholars visible? How firm a hand should institutions have over their academics’ digital footprint?

The creative industries faculty at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane has gone further than most down this path by starting a series of initiatives – including one named “pimp my profile” – that seek to help those academics with a poor online presence.

Some scholars refer themselves to the service, but others are referred to it as “priority people” by faculty research leaders.  

“No one seemed surprised or suspicious” to have been selected for this “researcher health check”, Ellen Thompson and Sally French, QUT librarians who oversaw the project, told Times Higher Education.

Librarians at the university act as “secret shoppers”, googling academics to see what they find then giving them suggestions to improve their showing.

“Everyone we contacted was delighted with the offer of help. They thought it was a great idea, and really appreciated having a critical friend take a look over their online presence – something they often did not have time to do in a holistic way,” they said.

“Occasionally” researchers did not acknowledge the secret shopper recommendations. However, these academics later “engaged with the initiative in other ways”.

One of the research leaders in the faculty, Mark Ryan, believed that his online presence was “sophisticated” and up to date and asked for a health check merely out of curiosity.

“I was genuinely surprised when I discovered how underdeveloped, how out-of-date, and how clunky my digital profile was,” he admits in a recent assessment of how the initiatives performed.

“My online presence was missing important information, my biography was unnecessarily long and difficult to follow, key profiling tools were not talking to each other or were only partially set up, and a good portion of my publications were not available in ORCID [a digital identifier for researchers] or Academia.edu,” he said.

One of the reasons that Ms Thompson and Ms French believe in “pimping” researchers’ profiles is the risk that a lack of online presence, fairly or not, can hurt careers. Even back in 2013, Corey Bradshaw, a climate change researcher at the University of Adelaide, blogged that “pretty much every time I review a manuscript or a grant application, I Google the researchers involved (at least the lead investigators)”.  

“When I can’t find their history, I get frustrated, generally become grumpy, and am probably less likely to give a positive review. And let’s not even go there if you’re looking for a job. Even with your CV and publications list in-hand, as a selection committee member, I will ALWAYS Google you. When I find that you haven’t even bothered to put yourself on the web, chances are you won’t even make the interview list,” he warned.

The QUT project was also launched because of a sense that at the moment, universities fail to look at the sum total of an academic’s online identity – in other words, the results that appear when you search for their name.

But this kind of institutional oversight of online profiles is “worrying”, according to Mark Carrigan, a researcher in social media at the University of Warwick, “because what constitutes a ‘good’ profile depends on where you sit within the university”.

There is some objectively good advice for improving academic visibility online, he said, but in reality this “easily slides into the notion of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways for academics to comport themselves online”.

“What might seem ‘correct’ in relation to one’s friends and collaborators might not in relation to one’s students or one’s managers,” he said.

It is “crucial” for universities to realise that their “brand” is that of a collection of freethinking individuals, not a uniform, corporate organisation, he argued.

Andy Miah, chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford, and author of the A to Z of social media for academia, said that academics should be the ones taking ultimate responsibility for their online profiles because they “need to think of themselves as individuals first and employees second”. However, universities should help, he added, “knowing that there is reflected glory in the social media success of their academics”.

However, Paul Temple, reader emeritus in higher education management at University College London, who has criticised universities’ attempts to alter their reputations through branding activity, cautioned that “personal branding” has “the risks of other sorts of branding, in that it may be an attempt to mislead”, although he added that “if it is simply presenting matters in the best light, well, we all do that”.

It may be, therefore, that the best approach to helping academics improve their online presence takes the form of a gentle nudge here and there.

The London School of Economics, well known for publicising its research via blogs and social media, has not gone as far as engaging secret shoppers to survey academics’ profiles.

But each week it does send out LSE-related news and content to colleagues who work with social media or blogging, “suggesting three pieces of content that can be used to fill gaps in social media schedules”, explained Amy Mollett, the LSE’s social media manager.

“This is primarily about encouraging colleagues to share topical or engaging content, and giving them some ongoing light-touch advice, without being prescriptive,” she said.

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Secret shoppers ‘pimp’ scholarly profiles

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