Webmaster and Commander (part 1)
Today I switched my professional website from our university system to my own domain on a private hosting service (www.joelparcoeur.com). This was not as difficult as I thought it would be. There are many reasons for why I made this move, none of which are related to the quality of our own university web designers.
There are several strong reasons for taking over management of my own website. Joan Strassmann pointed out many of these in a recent blog that tipped me over the edge to actually going through with it. First and foremost, my web presence is too important to place into someone else’s hands who does not have my interests as their number one priority. My website is vital for recruiting graduate students and post docs and serves as the most easily accessible reference for anyone reviewing my papers and grant applications. It also provides a face to the media, a resource for students and acts as a vital platform to help my graduate students and post docs gain employment. I will go so far as to say that academics without a web presence are pretty much the 21st century definition of deadwood. One might think that a university would be able to set up and maintain a better website than doing your own, but after some thought, I have come to the conclusion that this is impossible. The fact that institutions, and not the individual academic, pays the web designers means that we academics are always left with a suboptimal web presence unless we take matters into our own hands. This is not to disparage any university as the collective will always act in the collective interest.
The university website is set up to showcase the university and the centre’s within it. The result is emphasis on connections within the university. It is designed in such a way as to show case institutional activities and achievements. When individuals are featured it is usually for a short time and only a carefully selected few are allowed the spotlight. This would fine if I was always the one in the spot light whenever anyone visited the university website, but that is not possible. The way our university describes active research projects provides an excellent example of this conflict of perspective. At our university website, a visitor will get exactly the same description of a research project (from the same page the collaborators all link to) regardless of which collaborator’s website they are coming from. This makes sense from a management and university based perspective. However, from my perspective, I want to describe the project from the point of view of my contribution, targeting my peers, and those who I expect to be visiting my site. Thus, the university wants continuity and efficiency with single project descriptions, where as individuals need to emphasize their unique contributions and perspective. The individual ideal leads to replication of material in various forms and makes it difficult for media or other bodies to scrape the university websites for institutional information. Individuals will always come out second in this conflict in point of view because our web designers serve the university first for the simple reason that the university signs the pay checks.
One other practical problem is the amount of effort it takes to update the information on an institutional webpage. The official website always requires one to go through an official IT person who then posts it in the proper format. In theory, it should be easy but anyone who has ever done this knows that it is a game of postman with the IT person between the website and yourself. You cannot make a change, see how it looks, then make another change, see what happens, then change your mind and go back on something etc. These sorts of iterations, coupled with inevitable misunderstandings, drive the poor IT person (and yourself) crazy with frustration and acrimony. What ends up happening is that updating becomes such an unpleasant and time consuming chore that the official site can languish unchanged for years.
Perhaps most importantly, the institutional perspective almost always side lines the large majority of junior personal. The provisioning of websites tends to be prioritized or delegated from top to bottom with post doc, graduate students and technicians frequently left up to lab leaders to take care of. These pages are especially important for international researchers where the internet may be the only easily accessed public source of information for recruitment purposes. We are given a space to post these pages, but internal links are always directed to the university version of our official pages first. The links to the personally managed pages are almost always buried by hiding them in the research or contact sections of the official page.
The other reason for owning your webpage is for the sake of continuity. On at least one occasion a university reconfigured our IT system and moved all of our personal web spaces, breaking the links to our webpages by changing the URLs. This undid the Google ranking and broke the links in my publications. In addition, academics are notoriously mobile and moving your web address means all of the links from other people and sites and those in your published work will end up dead unless your institutions is willing to maintain pages indefinitely. Fortunately for me, my former post doc institution (UNIL) does. I am now convinced that it is most prudent to build a website with one permanent domain name that you can own for your entire career.
Finally, a large part of my motivation for my setting up my own website was to learn how to setup a webpage and to manage a web domain. As an ignorant amateur at html, I stumbled through the process with much trial and error, but I think ended up with a pretty nice webpage (mostly to discovering the amazing world of free templates, thank you Andreas Viklund). That adventure will be covered in part 2.