Here we present two views on public engagement (PE) or public relations (PR) and the thorny issue of “self promotion” in scientific research, from two scientists who might on the surface seem to be as different as scientists can be in regards to PE/PR. Yet we hope to convey the common ground that lies between these “extremes” and use it to explore, and spark discussion in, what self-promotion is and when it is a good vs. bad thing for scientists.
Professor John R. Hutchinson (here, simply John will do!) does research on dinosaurs and elephants and other “celebrity species” (well, some of them anyway; some others aren’t so sexy but he doesn’t care). Thus getting PE/PR is often all too easy. It is often said that “dinosaur” (or fossil) is among the “holy trinity” of media story subjects; space and health being two others. That status lubricates the gears of a science PE/PR machine. Sometimes, even, the problem is keeping a lid on the “sexy” research until it is “thoroughly cooked” and ready for PE/PR, rather than releasing it prematurely. A flip side to this issue is that this easy success with PE/PR means that almost everyone is doing it, albeit with varying aplomb. So it takes some extra effort to achieve relative excellence at PE/PR in John’s line of research, but he’s not complaining. In contrast, many (indeed, most!) scientists might not have it so easy getting PE/PR and hence need to actively engage in it to draw audiences in. However, when they are successful at PE/PR it might be easier for them to then stand out from the crowd.
Dr. Anne Osterrieder (again, let’s stick with Anne for short) is a Research and Science Communication Fellow, doing research on plant cells – hello? Hello?! Are you still there? Nine out of ten people will react to this revelation with the question: ‘Why do you work on plants? Plants are boring, they don’t really do anything, do they?’ Most plant scientists agree that the apathy or even contempt displayed towards our poor plants stems from a lack of proper engagement, starting with the way plants are taught in schools. As such plant scientists need to make a conscious effort to engage the public with current plant research and highly topical issues such as food security or plant pathology. Cells have a higher ‘fascination potential’, as the huge success of BBC’s ‘The Hidden Life of the Cell’ showed. Communicating current cell biology becomes more challenging however, the deeper we go.
With those introductions done, let’s see what our two scientists think about self-promotion and PE/PR:
While self-promotion among scientific researchers could be a slippery slope that leads to a spiral of egomaniacal aggrandizements and delusions of grandeur, how justifiable is this seemingly common perception? In extreme instances, namely the stereotyped – but perhaps relatively rare — “media whore” or “press hound” committing the faux pas of science-by-press-release, perhaps it is. But more commonly among scientists it may just be healthy behaviour. Almost every scientist probably does research because it brings them profound joy and satisfaction. Is it selfish to share that positive, personal message? By turning the issue around like this, one might instead wonder, what’s the problem? Put it all out there, fly your science banner high! Screw the cynics.
But as in much of life, there probably is a happy medium of moderation: a middle ground, because both selfish and generous reasons might underlie “self promotion”. Such reasons can and probably do coexist not only in perfectly non-pathological, but highly PE/PR-committed, researchers, but perhaps even in most scientists. The problem is, self-promotion has taken on bad connotations to some, or even many, scientists. It can frequently be seen couched as “shameless self-promotion” when a person promotes their science, as if to apologize for the promotion and commit it in one fell swoop. Why apologize? Just do it?! If you’re having fun with it, someone else probably will too, and that’s reason enough.
And a second issue is what kind of self-promotion is being performed — is it about the individual and their self-perceived, self-appointed glory? Or is it about the science, even in a detached third person view? Or is not even self-promotion, but team-promotion, if we consider that so many scientists these days are vital parts of a team, not lone wolves? Such a distinction of self vs. science is too artificial a dichotomy because scientists tend to feel personally enmeshed in their research. Without it, they would lack the drive to do it, even though every good supervisor is “supposed” to warn us to stay objective as researchers. And the subtext behind that “stay objective” is to stay impersonal; i.e. detached, inhuman, drained of character, passive voice and all that. Boring! But there is still some merit in considering both (and other?) sides of the matter, because it is not unreasonable to predict that the first kind of promotion (selfish; aggrandizing) is more dangerous than the second (generous; celebratory), because it is the ego taking the stage rather than the science. At the same time, we need both: the human, fallible, witty, emotive ego and the dry, objective, methodical, taciturn science. Without the former; warts and all; science could be too frigid to be fun.
Many researchers probably find it healthy to reflect on how much self-promotion is too much, whatever the reasons (and to some degree the reasons may not matter!). But it is not just the promoters who deserve introspection about their own practice. Those perceiving others’ “self-promotion”, especially in a negative light, could benefit from scrutiny of their own perceptions. What makes them presume that the motivation behind self-promotion is a malignant one, or not? And is the reasoning behind their judgement as sound as they’d apply to other scientific judgements they make on a daily basis — what behaviour are they reading into and how?
Alternatively, why worry about it? Isn’t a good scientist one who celebrates good science, yours, your team’s, or someone else’s? Again, this comes back to how much self-promotion is too much, but from an external perspective. Researchers are likely to judge others’ promotional activities by their own standards, not those of the promoter. They may be making value judgements with no objective basis, or (with colleagues that are not well known to the individual, all too common on the internet) no empirical evidence to go by except a brief press release, blog post, tweet or news article. Indeed, a case could be made that there is no objective basis to such a value judgement, by definition. Semantics and slippery slopes toward postmodernism aside, perhaps there is even no point to judging others’ self-promotions — and why does one wish to judge? An inward look at our own motivations for judging others’ can be salutary.
A major point here is: it is easy to conflate or confuse selfish promotion and unselfish sharing-the-joy-of-science, and to a degree it does not matter. This is because inevitably it is what is presented that matters: the content, not so much as the intent, in addition to the feedback one gets from engaging the public with research. That content-with-feedback is what almost everyone outside of academia says we should be doing—who are we to argue? Maybe we should try harder to put self esteem and other internal issues aside, and enjoy good science promotion for what it is, not what we might fear it could be. Whether a scientist is a lone wolf or team wolf, there’s no big bad wolf’s huffing and puffing to fear from good self-promotion of science. Let’s focus on building a strong house of science, brick by brick; one that lasts, and one that people hear of and care about.
Whenever I write something about science communication, I feel like I am treading on an extra-slippery slope of semantics. Science communication, outreach, public engagement, PR and promotion, all of these words have very different meanings depending on who you talk to. When I was a full-time researcher, I’d never even have thought about that they could mean different things. To me they all were synonyms of ‘Hey, let’s tell the world how amazing our research and science is!’ Since I became involved in science communication, I have realised that promoting our research isn’t necessarily the same as engaging non-expert audiences. While promotion certainly has its place and benefits (for example institutions highlighting their groups’ research achievements in external newsletter and online), real engagement is not so much broadcasting but two-way communication. I would like to point to an excellent article by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at University College London in a recent issue of British Science Association magazine ‘People & Science’. Steve writes: ‘I don’t tell members of the public that ‘science is fun’ or that ‘science has the answers’. I don’t even treat science as one great big unified thing. Instead I help researchers to share what they do. The message is less ‘We’re great!’ and more ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?’
Participating in this dialogue-centered way of public engagement means however that, inevitably, our specific research project will be the centre of attention. Most likely our person would be as well, since science isn’t (yet) carried out by autonomously working nano-robots. I would be very surprised if our audience saw such activities as self-promotion. I predict that they’d rather appreciate researchers ‘stepping out of the ivory tower’ into the public and interact with non-experts. Would our peers see it as self-promotion? Probably not. What if we promoted our activities on Twitter and other online or offline channels? What if we wrote a summary of the event and reflections on it afterwards? What if we posted links to all of this at different times during the day to make sure that different audiences saw it? What if we had several projects running in parallel and did this for all of them? The problem becomes apparent now and I am certain that at this point some peers would drop cynic remarks about ‘self-promotion’ or ‘attention whores’.
Self-promotion is frowned upon in academic circles. Generally it seems to be alright to promote ‘science’ or a whole field. Numerous times I have seen blogging scientists state — defend themselves! — that in many years of writing they never blogged about their own paper. But why not? If we follow the two-way model of public engagement described above, it would be perfectly fine to write a non-expert summary about one’s latest publication and say: ‘This is what I just published. What do you think?’ Similarly, the benefit of open access papers embedded in a social media site structure is that it allows discussions with non-experts. This will work significantly quicker and efficient if the authors alert and direct potential audiences to their paper through as many communication channels as possible– an act that again can be seen as self-promotion. Is our academic culture with its subtle or open contempt of self-promotion maybe inadvertently hindering effective engagement?
P.T. Barnum said: “Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!
So, self-promotion = bad. But If you think about it, our wole current academic system is based on self-promotion. When we submit a manuscript, we need to state in the cover letter why our research is novel and interesting. Even though scientific conferences are supposed to be about disseminating scientific results and initiate collaborations, they also serve the purpose of self-promotion. I don’t recall many talks with mainly negative, confusing or boring results (except maybe if a well established principal investigator was talking about their newest project and asking for feedback). Most early-career scientists would rather not submit an abstract if they haven’t got good data and wait until they can show nice results. Fact is, conferences are a big job interview for PhD students and post-docs. What about grants? Each proposal has dedicated sections for promoting yourself, your research group and your institute to increase your chances of getting a grant. Early-career researchers quickly have to learn how to write these bits, as otherwise they quickly will be at a disadvantage compared to those who can sell themselves well. I believe that there is a certain double standard around the issue of self-promotion in academia. On the one hand researchers accept it as a necessity to climb up the career ladder. On the other hand they might sneer at peers who put all of their Nature and Science references on slides in their talk. ‘What a complete showoff!’
If I follow someone on Twitter whose work I admire, say science writer Ed Yong or blogger Prof Athene Donald, or someone who does cool research I am interested in, I want to read everything they publish. I appreciate them linking to their articles and papers, repeatedly, since I am bound to miss it otherwise. I loved seeing John’s BBC clip of rhino foot pressure experiments because I wanted to learn more about his research – and I loved seeing him talk about it in ‘real life’ rather than only reading his words! But if someone at my professional level, who I am competing with for fellowships or grants, was constantly posting links to their achievements, I would probably be less tolerable of them. I’d roll my eyes and think “show-off”! But I admit honestly that this would be based on a less-than-noble notions: envy, feeling threatened and insecurity about my own achievements being sufficient to succeed.
When I talked about Twitter and enhancing your online profile at our departmental Away Day someone said: “Our generation has been brought up as being humble, as not showing off, as not shouting out our achievements. So where is the border between self-promotion and being a complete d***?” I don’t think that this is a generational thing, as many senior academics have no difficulties promoting themselves. At that time I bounced the question back to the audience and asked: ‘What do the younger ones think?’ There was silence and one PhD student said: ‘I think it’s OK. You have to do it — who else would do it otherwise?’ I suspect that being willing and able to sell yourself might be a personality rather than an age thing and that the line between ‘selling yourself’ and ‘showing off’ subjectively lies in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you think, times have changed and academic positions are on the decline. Maybe we need another motto next to ‘publish or perish’ – ‘self-promote or perish?’ Having a decent publication record won’t guarantee a research job anymore, as the competition is fierce. ‘Getting your name out there’, enhancing your profile, building a network and being engaged however will make you stand out of the crowd – as long as your self-promotion activities build upon actual achievements and not on hot air. In that case, you might deserve eye-rolling.
Some context, first. As we finished this post together, Anne and John reflected on what got us working on it, back in August 2012:
Anne: “You wrote that you had these thoughts on self-promotion after you returned from the [British] Science Festival. Was there a specific incident that raised these thoughts, or just general thinking?
John: “I often think about what I tweet and the amount of it, and whether “me-tweeting” is such a bad thing as some on Twitter say it is. I was me-tweeting a bunch of responses to my BSF talk and I thought I should, much as I do the same when people post stories about my research papers etc. But in particular this BSF event, which was heavy PE, got me thinking on the train ride home about why some people would (cynically, in my view) see that as PR and shameful self-promotion.”
While the two views we presented above are from different backgrounds and perspectives and such, our thoughts reveal many elements common to both. Perhaps these commonalities apply to most scientists, but, but… There is a hulking science-gorilla in the room: cultural similarities and differences. We cannot neglect the HUGE issue of Western scientific culture that John and Anne and others have in common! In other cultures, self-promotion might be seen very differently; indeed in UK it seems to sneered at more than in the USA, as Brits are less comfortable tooting their own horn (easy, now!). Some other cultures might have no problem with it at all. Others might find it abominable. However, how culture factors into self-promotion and PE/PR perceptions is a huge kettle of fish that we’re not quite ready to tackle, so we will turn that over for discussion in the comments here! How does your culture, whether very local (department?) or very broad (country/ethnicity) factor into this?