#FOAMed for academics: A primer. St Emlyn’s

This week I’m (virtually) attending the RCEM Research Engagement Day. This annual event combined an academic trainee day (14th) together with a more general day looking at research in a broader sense with lots of information on research systems, networks and funding. I’ve seen both programmes and they look excellent.

My short contribution on behalf of St Emlyn’s is to talk about dissemination and in particular the role of social media networks in supporting this. This blog is aimed to support the talk, but also to act as a stand alone primer on what every academic should consider when thinking about how to optimise their online presence to support their academic careers.

As the blog will explain, having an online presence and using that as leverage to promote your research and your research career is increasingly important. My advice is to think about this early and to develop good habits to ensure that the world sees your work as you intend, and not as others might misinterpret.

You can watch a short (10 min) video of the presentation here. Although if you are coming to the conference don’t watch it now as you’ll spoil the fun later!


The big theme.

If there is one thing to take away from this talk/blog it’s this quote.

‘science is not completed until it is communicated’

Mark Walport. UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser

This theme is essential in understanding why academics need to embrace the idea that it is not just the project they are working on that is important, but more importantly it’s vital that the findings are shared as widely as possible. Not just to promote your academic career (which is important), but also to let others see what has been done and to take it to the next level. This is how science should work, through the sharing and subsequent development of ideas.

Internet-based technologies clearly offer opportunities to make that sharing easier and wider. It’s therefore obvious that academics should understand and embrace such technologies to promote and disseminate their work.

Communication is vital to progress. As an example, Ross Fisher often talks about Ignaz Semmelweis, whom I’m sure you know a lot about already. Or perhaps you don’t. He discovered the principles of antisepsis but was unable to successfully share and disseminate them. Which is why you probably know who Pasteur and Lister are, but not Semmelweis. Had Semmelweis been able to widely disseminate his message many, many patients would have benefitted before his principles were later taken forward and popularised.

Let’s start with you.

If you work in academic medicine then you will have an online presence. As soon as you’ve published a paper or given a presentation at a conference, even just written an abstract then you will have records of your work on the internet. I learned almost all of the information in the next section from Mike Cadogan aka @sandnsurf who has been an inspiration and guide to St Emlyn’s from the very beginning.

Just for fun, why don’t you take a short pause and Google yourself. What did you find? Did your search results tell people all the good things about you and your work, or was it a little vague or disappointing?

The point is that you have an online presence and I hope that people will look you up to find out more about you and your work. You can’t avoid having an online presence and so you need to make a decision about whether or not you want to take an active role in shaping it. Personally I think that with relatively little effort you can improve your profile and shape what the internet says about you. It will take a small amount of effort, and a little bit of ongoing maintenance, but in the medium to long term it may well reap significant benefits.

Search engines are increasingly sophisticated, especially when looking at topics related to health and finance (the so-called ‘YMOYL – Your Money or Your Life’ searches). The standard for being listed on search engines like Google is higher when YMOYL terms are used and so it’s important to make it easy for search engines to see that you are a credible source. Exactly how that happens is complex and hidden to mere mortals such as us, but there are a few general themes that are worth remembering.

  • Use your full titles and qualifications wherever possible
  • Use same/similar profiles on multiple site that may be sampled by search engines so that they know you are the same person.
  • Link to social media sites
    • Put your key social media profiles in your bio
    • Consider splitting your academic/personal social media profiles (a fun account and a work account)
  • Link to credible sites
    • Use University emails
    • Mention links to academic organisations
  • Consider your security settings and ensure they are as good as they can be
    • Use 2-point authentication
    • FOR THE LOVE OF GOD – get a password manager (e.g. LastPass) and use it.

What to put in your profile?

This is no time for imposter syndrome. Remember that you are advertising yourself to an impersonal algorithm which will focus on what it can identify as credible and which it can link to other resources. This does mean that your profile might come across as a little pompous for those with more modest personalities, but get over it and write to the algorithm. If you have a look at my profile from St Emlyn’s you’ll get a bit of an idea of what you might want to put in your profile.

Note that I put most of my qualifications in (left out my music grades 😉 ) and I’ve used some key words such as ‘creator’ and ‘webmaster’ as these are important phrases for blog editors. They are not phrases I usually use about myself (I think I’m a little more modest than that), it’s just that I must play by what I believe the rules to be (for now). Note also that I’ve linked to one of my university appointments that can then be cross-referenced by the algorithm, and to my main social media profile (for me that’s Twitter).

On other websites I link back to the blog and podcast so that the systems understand that I am one and the same person, thus increasing the likelihood of my online identity being recognised as credible.

This stuff matters. In 2019 Google changed their algorithm to strengthen their work around YMOYL sites. That led to St Emlyn’s almost falling off the map. We did some remedial work initially which had a small effect and then more (and perhaps just got noticed) in May 2020. You can see the impact on the graph below.

You can read more about the Google Medic Update on LITFL here , the date on the website says Nov 2020, but it was originally published back close to the original update from 2018. You can see in Mike’s blog what the profound impact on St Emlyn’s was of not ‘playing the game’ well.

Google Medic Update – EAT protocol

The bottom line here is that you do need to recognise that you have an online profile and that your presence needs occasional updating if you want to optimise your presence.

What do I need to do now?

Clearly this is a rabbit hole that can really go deep into algorithms, reputation management and more. For the vast majority of people that’s unnecessary. However, there are probably a few basic things that everyone should check that they have in place and up to date. Here’s my top list to join/review this week. Wherever possible mention one or all of the others on each site to create and highlight that they all relate to the same person.

Enough about me/you. What else should I think about as an academic?

When I look back at when I started using #FOAMed there are many things that I wish I had been able to define and articulate from the beginning. The rest of this blog is based on 6 areas that I think are worth thinking about from the beginning (as it may be harder to do some of them in retrospect).

academic primer in #FOAMed

1. Complexity

Don’t be put off by what may seem to be complex from the technology perspective. At an entry level you really need very few skills beyond internet browsing and word processing skills. For the personal profile tasks listed above it really is incredibly straightforward and possible to complete in an afternoon.

For slightly more complex tasks such as setting up a simple (i.e. free) blog, podcast, or YouTube channel it’s a little more difficult and will require you to set up accounts and of course produce content. That’s a significant step up but again well within the capabilities of most clinicians if they are so inclined.

academic primer in #FOAMed

The problem is that most people will get frustrated with the limitations of a free accounts and if considering to move into a more robust blog (like St Emlyn’s) then more time, effort, costs and expertise will be required.

The good news is that there are lots of people out there in #FOAMed who are prepared to help you get started.

The bottom line is that it’s probably not as complex as you think, and if it is there is lots of help available. In other words, don’t let complexity put you off managing your online presence.

2. Copy

There is a somewhat tongue in cheek saying that suggests that ‘plagiarism is the most sincere form of flattery’. Obviously that’s not the case in most academic endeavours where plagiarism is a heinous crime, but in terms of getting ideas about how you want to present and share your work it’s worth spending a bit of time looking around successful profiles and websites to see what works.

academic primer in #FOAMed

Look at sites that are in the same field as you and critique them, then copy the best bits. Look at the writing style, graphics, organisation etc. If you see something you like, but can’t work out how to do it, I’d suggest emailing the site creator/webmaster to find out how it was done. Many of the innovations on this site were copied from other sites with the support and guidance of their lead editors.

3. Collaborate

Collaboration can take many forms. As mentioned above it might mean asking for help and getting ideas from other sites, but also means contributing to established platforms.

Most bloggers and podcasters are interested in new ideas and results. Consider getting in touch with established sites to tell them about your research and ideas. Offer to create or discuss content and work with groups outwith your usual circle of influence. As the internet is not constrained by geography or time it’s entirely possible to collaborate with group across the globe and in other specialities. From an academic perspective this is important as great things come from wider collaborations.

Developing your online presence so that you can be found, and reaching out to other groups is a key aspect of developing your academic career. In the past meetings and conferences may have served this purpose, but in the modern age, and especially during COVID-19 then we need to embrace technology to achieve this.

4. Change

The internet and social media are different media spaces as compared to traditional print/presentation objects. If you have a message that you want to communicate then you need to change the style of that message to suit the medium in which it is to be delivered.

I see many examples where someone might have a perfectly good face to face lecture, or perhaps a print-out, who then simply uploads that to a website or social and expects it to work in the same way. In many cases it won’t. Think about your own tolerance to listening to a lecture online vs. in a face to face setting. If you are anything like me then you will have far less patience for online events. In the online setting we expect them to be quicker, get to the point and to signpost to other resources.

academic primer in #FOAMed

Think about how your content needs to adapt to the new platform you are aiming to deliver it on. Watch and learn how others succeed in translating their work into social media and the web.

5. Curate

It won’t take long before the content linked to you starts to accumulate online, and just like a librarian facing a pile of assorted books the time will come for you to organise and curate your work. In some respects this will be done automatically for you, sites such as research gate, Google scholar and pubmed do collate work linked to your profile (of course assisted by things such as having an ORCiD ID).

It’s a really good idea to start thinking about how you are going to curate your content as you progress. This is where meta-data attached to anything you do can help. For example, on St Emlyn’s we tag all our posts with codes that link to the RCEM curriculum.

6. Communicate

Finally, and perhaps most importantly it’s important to think about how you want to communicate your work to a wider audience. This is important not just to encourage people to access your work but also to raise your profile in order to access new collaborative opportunities beyond your immediate circle of influence.

academic primer in #FOAMed

How you do this will vary depending on your area of interest. My advice is to look how leaders in your area of interest communicate their work. Which platforms do they or their departments use. What links to social media or web resources do they use? Look online and also see what they link to traditional publications. Seek out recent online presentations and follow similar social media accounts and websites. This strategy can certainly improve your profile, particularly if you engage in conversations online. So do ask questions, share articles, critically review and discuss what you find and link in local and not so local colleagues in those conversations.

The strategy above will reap rewards, but it also risks an echo chamber so do consider linking to groups and individuals outside your usual interests and please consider the equality and diversity split of your online community. Sadly, in the online scientific world women and minority groups are under-represented. My results are below, and I’m not proud of them, but suspect many others will have similar results.

Gender profile for @EMManchester via https://www.diversifyyourfeed.org/

A concept that we use a lot at St Emlyn’s is that of Social Media and #FOAMed being an amplifier for your message. Used well it will tell people of your great work and take it to new audiences and opportunities. Similarly it can also be an amplifier for poor work, opinions or faux pas, do be professional in your online activities.

You will also be aware that many conferences and journals now amplify their message via social media streams. It is therefore increasingly important that you can engage in those conversations to clarify and amplify your message. In order to do so then you need to construct and maintain an online presence.

Final thoughts.

As an aspiring or current academic it is not possible to ignore the influence of online media and increasingly social media. These technologies, combined with a relatively small amount effort in setting them up and keeping them up to date are important adjuncts to a successful academic career.




  1. RCEM Research Engagement Day 2021. Link here
  2. RCEM Curriculum link here
  3. Diversify your feed https://www.diversifyyourfeed.org/
  4. Google medical protocol – EAT protocol https://litfl.com/google-medic-update-eat-protocol/

Cite this article as: Simon Carley, "#FOAMed for academics: A primer. St Emlyn’s," in St.Emlyn's, January 14, 2021, https://www.stemlynsblog.org/foamed-for-academics-a-primer-st-emlyns/.

Thanks so much for following. Viva la #FOAMed

Scroll to Top