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:

John:

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. 

Anne:

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.

Conclusion:

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?

 

 

Thanks for rat­ing this! Now tell the world how you feel — .
How does this post make you feel?
  • Excited
  • Fascinated
  • Amused
  • Bored
  • Sad
  • Angry