What’s on a good research project site?

Old Story (Photo by Place Light | www.flickr.com/photos/place_light)
Old Story (Photo by Place Light | http://www.flickr.com/photos/place_light)

It seems to be the done thing these days to have a webpage about your research project.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that it’s considered an increasingly essential part of research engagement and dissemination, and – really – it is so easy to set something up these days.


Well…yes and no. (Stay with me, I’m a humanities scholar and that’s how we answer everything)

I had a great chat recently with a researcher who was wanting to set up an online presence for his project. Part of the task of this presence was to recruit subjects for his PhD study.

It was a valuable conversation for him (or so he tells me…!) and also for me, because it clarified our perceptions of what was necessary, good, and ideal.

What I’m talking about in this post isn’t focused on what specific funding bodies may want, or elements that fulfil project final report obligations.

I’m looking at the website as something that showcases the research project and aims to engage the right groups. I’m taking the perspective of an interested member of the public, or a non-specialist academic colleague, more than peers who are in your exact area.

There are heaps of pieces out there about how to create an effective website, but I get derailed when they keep referring to customers and brands. Put your filters in place, though, and you can still glean a lot of good info from these articles. Pat Thomson has written about her experiences with blogging her research projects, and discusses the uneven results.

This post is my take on what the basics are for a good research project website. It presumes a small to non-existent budget, and no expert team of web-design or site-construction people at your disposal.

For me, a good research project website should:

1. Make a good first impression

  • Don’t cram all the information ever about the project onto the website. To archive the entire project is not the point of a site. The point is to present a summary of the project, give info on its key components, and present a selection of its findings/outcomes. You want people to know:
    • how the project came about and what a great job you and your team have done in this field to make fabulous things happen.
    • how people can contribute, give feedback, or participate.
    • who the supporting organisations (funding or in-kind) are. Doing acknowledgements the right way encourages smooth sailing should you want to tap them for assistance in the future!
    • what the ongoing outcomes and activities are for the project. Some projects use project websites for further recruitment or data-collection, as a stepping-stone to the next project, or open it up for others to contribute to. Some teams link to open access repositories, or upload PDFs of their working and conference papers.
  • Plan out what streams of information you want on the site: What’s the set text? Are you going to have a Twitter feed down one side? Will you be updating news in a blog section? Don’t have too many side-bars and feature boxes fighting for attention. It will look cluttered.
  • Use striking, meaningful photographs. Ensure you have quality, relevant pics on the site. Nothing worse than pages that look as if they’re populated with stock photos. Make the pictures count, and don’t have them there just to break up text (they do break up text, but they should be doing more than that). Where possible, feature ‘doing’ shots, pics that capture some process or aspect of the research.

2. Have text that is succinct, jargon-free, and well proofed.

Distil the information down to what you want to convey most, and make sure it’s stripped to core text that tells the story of your research project. Nick Feamster wrote about good storytelling for academics. While he’s talking specifically about academic papers, the advice is also relevant for nutting out website content, particularly where he talks about building the scaffold of the story. For medical science types, this listing of 10 tips for writing a lay summary is very useful.

Always run the text past another pair of eyes (or two), and get non-specialists to check its tone and whether it’s jargon-free.

3. Contain consistent team information

Present the research team’s information in a consistent manner. Don’t have reams of stuff on the lead Chief Investigator, then small paras for the rest. This is not a good look. Have the same kinds of info for each person, and definitely the same space allocated to each.

The website should feature similar profile pictures of the team (if you decide to have team photos – I like them). Have consistency in the images’ size, framing, and resolution. I’m a fan of semi-formal group shots, where the researchers look human, but aren’t hanging out in board-shorts and sculling drinks.

4. Have everything in its place

Navigation for your website should be logical and clear. I think there are some standard pages for research project websites: ‘About the Project’, ‘Contact’, ‘Supporters’ (or ‘Sponsors’), and ‘The Research Team’ (or similar). Other than these, you might have: ‘Publications’, ‘Events’, ‘Get Involved’, or ‘Updates’.

As with the website text, run the site past various people, to test whether the navigation logic you came up with actually works for a broad audience, and that there are no gaps or repetition in the information.

That should get you well started on the basics of what should be part of a good research project site. Which platform should you use? Well, Lifehacker’s ‘Best platforms for building websites‘ can probably give you that answer.

Want to point out something I’ve missed? Vehement objections to what I’ve said? Go on, do it in the comments!

Below are some of the research project website suggested to me when I crowdsourced for some ideas for this post on Twitter . They vary immensely in terms of how much resourcing was behind them, and how ‘academic’ they perceived their audience to be. Have a look through and see what works for you, and the kind of work you want to get out there.

Recommended research project websites:


  1. Very helpful. I started a blog at the beginning of the year to write about my research project for Master’s, and while looking for tips and ideas I also got sidelined by talk about brands and customers and things like that. My blog is definitely not very formal and it only involves me, but this post has made me think about a few improvements I could make.


    • Glad you found it useful, K.! There are some very complex (expensive) sites out there, but most of the researchers I know have no resourcing for this kind of thing. It’s good to have them up, and the more sustainable they are as sources of info/comms, the better.

      Drop your project URL here – would like to check it out. 🙂


      • Hi Tseen, thanks for the interest. My blog is rather informal, and there are some random things around, but I describe my Master’s project here: http://kvanderwielen.wordpress.com/current-project/. It’s really more about coming to grips with the project and how the process unfolds in South Africa. I’ve noticed that most sites and blogs available are generally aimed at PhD projects. I think this might be because most countries have moved toward a taught Masters. In South Africa most humanities subjects generally do Masters by thesis. However, a lot of what’s written for PhD candidates is helpful for us, so I’m grateful for resources like this one.


    • Hi Scott! Yes, it’s Wilkins’ project/site – Katy Vigurs suggested it (all the handles featured in the list are the suggesters from Twitter, not the investigators/project leaders). 🙂


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