Online research identity

Online identity and  potential impact on career of using social media

Online social communication can have a considerable impact on how people view you and the type of person you are. When you are going to use social media to communicate professionally, and for research information dissemination, you need to be very aware of the messages that you are giving to people. There are numerous stories about people losing jobs because of their non-professional exploits discovered on Facebook; one of the morals of those stories is to manage your privacy and online settings as tightly as possible.

Remember: Your online activity will always leave a footprint. Deletion rarely means deletion.

If you are associated with a non-professional online profile this will impact not only on the view potential employers have, but your credibility as a professional person and researcher. Commentary and communication in online spaces brings a new danger: as opposed to gossiping in your research office, once you’ve posted comments about a person or their work online, it’s there for all to read.

Regardless of whether you think at this stage that you are going to have a research career, there is no avoiding the impact of online activity on your future career, and the sooner you put in place steps to protect your online profile/s the better. Before you choose to do any type of online activity, and that includes anything you do as part of this programme, you need to ensure that you have considered the following questions:

  1. what is my purpose of using this type of tool/technology? General communication, recording my experiences of research, communicating to a specific group of people, uploading my research data, setting up professional contacts for employment . . .
  2. what type of content will I be publishing using this type of tool/technology? Text, photos, datasets, multimedia, comments/responses/appraisal of other people’s work . . .
  3. who is my intended audience? My peers, the lay public, employers, researchers, friends . . . It could be a mix of all of these people, and depending on who you want to target your communication at, be aware of the tone and the language you choose to use.
  4. should I be using this tool/technology only for personal reasons? If yes, you will still need to monitor the messages you communicate online.
  5. what are the types of security settings for this tool/technology? Read the information provided by the service about their use of your personal information, as well as privacy settings that you can apply to the display of your personal information. If you want to restrict access to the information that you are entering check what settings you can place on these. Reference management software, for example, should not permit you to share documents for which you don’t own the copyright.
  6. if this tool/technology does not permit security settings, is it appropriate for my purpose? It’s likely there will be some limits to the use of your personal information that you can ascribe, but if you are really unsure about how your personal data will be used, don’t feel you have to use the service.
  7. will other people I work with be comfortable if I use this tool/technology to communicate my work? If you are blogging about your research, take into account other people’s views and feeings about the possibility of them appearing in your blog. It’s good practice to keep other people out of your blog unless you have permission to write about them. In addition make it clear that the views you are expressing are your own.
  8. if I want to set be anonymous how will I protect my identity from being discovered? The majority of social media services require you to register before becoming an active user. This does not mean you have to use your real name with a registered account. However why do you want to remain anonymous? If you are engaged in research communication, anonymity will not further your career or achievements in any way.
  9. if a potential employer found this content, what would s/he think of my work? This is crucial.
  10. how will I protect the content I have posted so that other people do not misuse it? You want to ensure you are recognised as the author of content that is yours online. Use Creative Commons licences where applicable, tell people what you will permit and not permit if content is reused. Follow up comments and retweets, and if you find that someone or a service has used your content inappropriately, contact them. The online community that you will become part of will back authors’ rights, and naming and shaming abusers of content could be most effective.
  11. if I am commenting on/responding to someone else’s content, what impact could that have? Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in any other public arena. The person you are responding to is an individual, and will have decided they have a justifiable reason for posting up content. If you disagree, make sure you have a good argument to support this. If content is offensive, then contact the hosting service where appropriate.
  12. how can I ensure that I keep my identity linked to my other online activities, and it is not confused with someone else? There are a number of unique author identifier schemes, the two most well-known being ResearcherID, set up by Thomson Reuters, a scheme for authors to register their name and affiliation, and identify their publications, and ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID), managed by an independent non-profit organisation. Its objective is to ‘establish an open, independent registry that is adopted and embraced as the industry’s de facto standard’ and ORCID’s Board of Directors including representatives from major publishers such as Thomson Reuters, Nature and Wiley. This is important because without the involvement of publishers in this arena, any ID schemes will not work. Martin Fenner has written extensively about ORCID and author identifiers on his blog, and is on ORCID’s Board of Directors.
  13. do I want to keep my professional profile separate from my personal profile? Maintaining 2 profiles can be time-consuming, but you can certainly keep your social networking profile separate from your professional profile if you wish to. For example, make use of professional networking sites if you don’t want to foster network connections via Facebook.

What should I say online?

You want to be making a positive not a negative impact, never engage in an activity that you think could be negative. This doesn’t mean you should not be critical, nor keep your views and opinions so neutral as to be unimportant; innovation, creativity and debate are all major benefits of enhanced online communication.

Your contributions have to be well-considered, appropriate, and relevant to the discussion/activity/comment/content that you are engaging with. Strong opinions and argument have their place in any field, but it has to be supported by evidence and reason for you to be taken and treated seriously and authoritatively. Otherwise you are simply a person who rants for no better reason than because you can, and you will be ignored, or worse considered a problem to be avoided.

Be aware of what you are communicating

A watchword about innovation:

  • be very careful if you decide your purpose is to speak about a new aspect of research you are involved in.

That work could form the basis of grant applications, a research paper or a patent application. If you’ve already disclosed data, ideas, potential applications of your work, you may find these are unfavourably affected. Until you have achieved your desired output, the grant, publication of the paper, or a successfully registered patent, you may want to keep your work out of the fully public arena.

Be aware that contentious and controversial issues will have to be handled carefully. The upside of open communication is also a downside. The traditional media networks are hugely powerful and influential and controversy, as you know, is an instant attraction. Debates about issues that affect the general public, i.e. climate change, GM, vaccinations, nuclear energy and technology, and so on, will gain attention that you may actually not want.

Think of the positive

  • The impact on your career is the build-up of a collection of work that you can use to manage and raise your professional profile, and provide evidence of your development, work and research interests.
  • You can find connections across the world, or within the same city, that you would not otherwise make, and be given opportunities by people you have never met in person, and may never meet.
  • Building up an online network of contacts and people with similar interests can have huge benefits.
  • Collaborative projects, opportunities for funding and employment can all be achieved as a result of online communication, as well as developing your prominence as someone to be listened to.
  • The ability to communicate with a new audience, the non-academic world.

Traditional methods of scholarly communication are still critically important and will remain so, but social media can provide equally valuable forms of scholarly communication that are increasingly likely to be valued and accommodated by funders and policy makers in the future.


1. To learn more about ORCID and to sign up for your own ORCID, go to the ORCID site.

To learn more about ResearcherID, and register for your own ID, go to the ResearcherID service.

Author identifier schemes and using ResearcherID (PDF)

2. It’s not all about author identification. For an overview of other ways to promote your research profile, have a look at Brian Kelly’s slideshow on Slideshare. Many of the services and tools he mentions will appear in this blog as well.

3. To expand beyond the academic world, set up a account. See an example of Ed Yong’s (science writer) page here. You can add your accounts to any services you sign up during this programme.

4. Consider using a blog as your website. See Erika Cule’s blog written here at Imperial as an example of a PhD student blogging.


Fenner, M. (n.d.) Author Identifier Overview. Gobbledygook. Available at:

Fenner, M. (2007-current year) Goobledygook. [Blog] Available at:

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