What does your academic web page say about you?

I am often looking people up on the web to see who they are and what they do. What I have noticed is a tremendous variation in the quality and quantity of information that people offer on their home pages. It is also interesting to speculate on the intended audience for these web pages: students or other academics? So what do we find and what questions does it raise:

  1. Picture or no picture. It is often helpful to have a picture of the person on the page, particularly if you are arranging to meet that person in venue other than their office. There is probably an interesting study to be done on this alone – why do some academics post a photo and others choose not to?
  2. Office hours. It is fascinating that some academics appear to be guarding their time more than others. Some post limits to office hours because they are working part-time at the university whilst others appear to be trying to restrict access to students. The pages that list office hours as ‘Friday 17:00 – 18:00’ appear to be particularly restrictive.

The bulk of most pages often appear to be taken up with listing research activity in terms of papers and books that have been published, grants won and listing collaborations. There may also be some indication of awards that have been gained and some more technological savvy academics will also have Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, video links and links to other resources.

The relative space that is given to research and teaching is very interesting. A while ago I compared the staff pages of all the staff in two academic departments in the same university and looked at the space given to different activities measured in terms of lines of text dedicated to a particular activity. Within the pages of the Physics Department the averages were 2.9% teaching and 78.6% research. Most academics will list their publications in chronological order and this takes up considerable space. In contrast the space given to teaching will be succinct in the extreme and will typically say something like, “modules taught: Physics 101; Physics 201”. Nothing is offered about the philosophy of teaching or even a link to the module catalogue to allow a student to see what Physics 101 entails. Over 30% of the staff pages in the department had no mention of any teaching at all. Interestingly, even among the home pages of Teaching Fellows (who are not engaged in research) the information about teaching is typically no richer.

In comparison, the Sociology Department in the same university showed a slightly different pattern with teaching taking up an average of 9% of the space and research an average of 64%. This raises some questions about disciplinary differences. There are a number of practical reasons why these averages might not express a difference in philosophical emphasis: the sociologist rarely included more than three or four authors on a research paper whereas it is quite common for the physicist to include 10, 20 or more co-authors in a paper. In addition, many of the outputs in the Sociology Department were books rather than journal papers. So on average their outputs were much longer with fewer produced each year – hence taking up less space on the web.

The other interesting thing to note is that some academics clearly see their home page as their shop window to the world and the data included is up to date and complete. Whilst others apparently see little value in their web page and even their research record is not up to date with publication output mysteriously stopping four or five years ago (presumably the last time the page was updated) or listing papers as “submitted 2006”. Such sloppiness doesn’t really offer a very professional image – whether the intended audience is other academics or students.

The variation that is observed does raise a question about how institutions view their own web sites. Who are they for and what are they intended to convey? I think there is some interesting research to be done here. Before you check, I now have the summer to make sure my own profile is up to date.


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