Science & self-promotion

I was at Experimental Biology 2012 this past week. It’s the first time I’ve been to an EB meeting and also the first society meeting I’ve attended in a few years. I was excited and it was really great far: meeting new people, hearing about interesting and diverse science, and learning much about the non-research aspects of science.

Unexpectedly I learned some things about myself. Among them, I am an attention-seeking whore. Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

The ASBMB Public Policy Advisory Committee sponsored an engaging panel discussion on effectively communicating science to non-scientists. Former NIGMS director and ASBMB president-elect Jeremy Berg moderated the panel consisting of: two science correspondents, Joe Palca from NPR and Cara Santa Maria from Huffington Post; Megan Palmer, Deputy Director of Practices at Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center; and Stanford biochemist, Nobel laureate, and science policy advocate Paul Berg.

After a few remarks from each panelist, the audience started asking questions, and there was extensive discussion, much of which was captured on Twitter and organized on Storify by editor of ASBMB Today, Angela Hopp. The session highlighted the importance of engaging with non-scientists of all types (public, industry, non-profits, government, etc.) to create relationships. One way or another, people are going to have conversations about science – what’s new, what it means, what policies are needed. If we’re not there to shape the conversation, other people will, and if scientists don’t get involved, it has the potential to be disastrous for science.

Paul Berg was involved in recombinant DNA policy discussions 40 years ago, and he has continued to advocate for responsible research in policy debates since. He pointed out that a major part of science advocacy requires scientists to give careful thought to concerns of non-scientists, which are often not obvious to us. He thought that if the public were represented by a media presence early on in policy debates, communication on controversial topics would be much more effective. In short, he provided some very insightful comments.

And then he said it.

As the science correspondents and audience were advocating for scientists to reach out to the media, to interact with the public, to use blogs to develop science communication skills, Paul Berg jumped in.

“I’m concerned about the line between self-promotion and responsiveness.”

I’m not a transcriptionist, so I didn’t get down word for word everything that was said – and if anyone who was there feels that I got something wrong, by all means, let me know. But here’s the gist of what I heard:

There’s a fine line between effective science communication and self-promotion. The idea of pitching stories to the media or writing blogs crosses that line. It’s too much like self-promotion, and self-promotion is “the antithesis to scientific culture”.

You could almost the collective jaw dropping in the room. Only an hour earlier Joe Palca had admonished us, “Stop dissing scientists are good at communicating to the public!” And now the one academic research scientist on the panel was saying, communicate but don’t take it too far.

In my experience, science blogging isn’t about self-promotion. I blog about the culture of science. My audience here is other scientists, and the goal is to promote discussion of (and hear other perspectives on) the system and the processes of training, funding, and other aspects of a life in science. Along the way, social media turned into a way to plug into a community of diverse peers and mentors. I think this community is improving my potential as a member of the scientific community at large. You are teaching me about grants, politics, advocacy, and much more. You point out when my perspectives are colored by privilege. You ward off the sense of isolation that can be overwhelming at times. I think I have helped others in similar ways. Among those who blog about research, I would hardly call their writing self-promotion. Most write about work in their field but rarely their own. Largely their goals are to encourage discourse in their fields or to educate non-experts and non-scientists, the exact things upon which the panel and past and present ASBMB presidents had been placing great emphasis and importance.

But, let us say for the sake of argument that social media is about self-promotion.  Are we really going to pretend that there is no place for self-promotion in science? This notion that self-promotion flies in the face of scientific culture is ludicrous. We promote ourselves often and are encouraged to do so. In fact, we’re told that it’s a key component of being successful. Only it’s not usually called ‘self-promotion’. We call it networking, granstmanship, conferencing, advocacy, publishing, and outreach. We write papers and grants expounding how important, unique, and revolutionary our work is. We go into the community or approach Congress critters to talk about how essential our work – and public funding of it – is. We go to meetings like Experimental Biology 2012 to share our research with our peers, to let people know who we are, to connect with future collaborators and reviewers. In most, if not all, scientific career paths, success is wrapped up in people knowing who we are, in getting our name out and infiltrating the circles that can help us reach that next goal.

The message and goals of online and face-to-face interactions can be the same. It’s only the medium that’s different. Science communication and advocacy come down to building relationships, establishing experience/expertise, and ultimately showing up and engaging in thoughtful discourse. This is not just my humble opinion; these were the sentiments the sci-comm panelists shared, Paul Berg included.

Certainly we must be cognizant of unique nuances to engagement on social media platforms, e.g. speed, audience size and makeup, perpetuity of the digital record. There are occasional examples of scientists behaving badly online, for instance using a blog to push hir own research while viciously tearing apart that of competitors – because even on the internet, scientists remain human, sometimes acting rashly or inappropriately, just as happens in every day life. The activation barrier to posting something online is lower than showing up to a meeting and getting into a public argument with another scientist. But we don’t dismiss scientific meetings on account of bad behavior, nor should we dismiss other platforms solely for that reason.

Social media has great potential for science communication and advocacy. It’s easy for people to get involved, and in time, you can reach a much larger and more diverse audience than might ever be possible in your day-to-day interactions. Social media engagement isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. We should use whatever resources and outlets fit our individual style, but that doesn’t make other forms worthless. It’s about the message, not the medium, and we should leverage whatever medium enables us to reach our individual audiences.

Of course, by writing about this here, I am reaching an audience that has, to some degree, already embraced digital media as a mode of effective science communication. In other words, I’m preaching to the choir. Hopefully scientific professional societies will begin to use more traditional forms of communication to share the utility of social media platforms, rather than just allowing a few strong and privileged voices to tear them down.

This entry was posted in attitudes, barriers, blogging, cranky postdoc moment, respect, social media, stereotypes. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Science & self-promotion

  1. Zen Faulkes says:

    As a member of the choir:

    “Oh yeah, PREACH IT!”

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  3. As an academic research scientist and lecturer, I describe myself as being a professional writer and performer. To suggest that a professional performer not engage in self promotion seems absurd.

  4. behrfacts says:

    I agree entirely that you cannot separate promotion from blogging whatever context you operate in. Young people need to learn how to analyse the different shades properly. That’s why I found well-taught history at school so helpful and no doubt critical thinking does the same nowadays.

    • biochembelle says:

      I suppose there is some truth to the idea that you cannot separate promotion from blogging. Every one of us has some agenda or interest that we’re pushing. This doesn’t just happen with blogging. And I don’t think social media is always about promoting the individual above the message, which I felt was the context of the commentary (though some disagree with the interpretation).

      • markmeloon says:

        Belle, great article. Thanks for writing this up. I actually posted an article on my blog just a few days ago highlighting a missing piece in most social media communications that is going to become increasingly important in coming years.

        That piece is “authenticity” and the first step in using this in your writing is to do what you did: identify that you have a desire to grab attention. That does not make you a bad person at all! In fact, you are being authentic about the fact that you are sometimes not authentic (e.g., communicating to grab attention instead of a desire to contribute). Kinda weird, huh? Trust me, it works.

        You can read more about why authenticity is important and the theory behind why this is especially timely advice at my blog.

  5. I have been baffled by these “don’t self-promote” arguments. It just goes against everything we’re told to do to be successful academics, when you add it all together. Self-promotion, to me, doesn’t have the end-game of showing everyone how awesome I am for my own self satisfaction. The goal is to be really good at my science, and then to be really good at making sure that the /science/ gets out there– to my fellow scientists (talks, publishing) and to the public, including the media (blogging, Twitter, outreach, a good web presence, maybe a book or two). In this funding climate, I can’t see how I could possibly reach my goals (because we’re still supposed to have those, right) without doing things like “networking” and “outreach,” which have the added benefits of furthering public engagement and knowledge, and making my career more vital and fulfilling (which ultimately means more sustainable).

    • zfaulkes says:

      Jacquelyn, the generous explanation for the “don’t self promote” argument is the time budget argument. Time spent promoting yourself is time you could be doing science.

      There’s also two shades of self-promotion. Academic self-promotion is okay (networking, publishing in high impact journals). External self-promotion is viewed with more suspicion. I think Berg had the latter in mind.

      I remember meeting a guy once who wanted to be a comic artist who said, “I intend to make quite a name for myself.” I thought, “You smug little so and so.” Vanity is never attractive. Maybe Berg was reacting more to vain individuals more concerned with fame for vanity’s sake versus a genuine interest in engagement.

      Related post: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/09/we-live-for-fame-fame-baby.html

      • Well, Berg did say that blogging was bad self-promotion. I personally see the lines as blurry– I use Twitter and blogging both for academic (networking, problem-solving, information-sharing) and external (outreach) reasons. Your point about fame in your post is a good one. Personally, I see “fame” (if you want to call it that) as a way to reach a lot of people and have a positive impact. If I can get the public excited and thinking about climate change, extinction, or just how cool science is, then that’s awesome. I don’t think that detracts from my science, ultimately. I think of outreach as a way of energizing my work.

        As for arrogance or vanity, I agree. If the science comes first, then I think that’s a productive way forward that doesn’t fall into the category of vanity: “this is the work I do, I’m really excited about it and I hope you are, too, so I’d like to share it with you.” Ultimately, for me, that’s what it comes down to. The science and the outreach are both acts of love and geekery. It sounds like Blerg would still call that self-promotion.

      • biochembelle says:

        Maybe Berg was reacting more to vain individuals more concerned with fame for vanity’s sake versus a genuine interest in engagement.

        To some extent, I think this is true. Unfortunately he implied that particular approaches to communication – pitching stories to media and blogging – fell into the former category.

        As I was discussing with someone on Twitter (who thought Berg’s comment was linked more to the idea that scientists need to listen to non-scientists and not just spout off opinions), there is a major disconnect between what many people *think* blogs are used for (often without really reading them) and how other people *actually* use them.

        In my experience, those who have the most negative views of blogging are also those who are in positions of privilege such that they don’t see much personal professional benefit. For instance, Nobel laureates really don’t need to establish relationships and expertise because they are famous – not on a celebrity scale but on a scientific (and science journalism) scale.

        My own adviser thinks of blogs as places where people post pictures of their cats and what they had for lunch. One day, I pointed out that I’ve learned a massive amount about the funding system through blogs. He replied, “When I want to know something, I pick up the phone and call someone.” I countered, “You’re in a position that you can do that.” He has a massive network of people accumulated over a number of years through connections with mentors, collaborators, and colleagues in the field. I’m still building my network, and part of my network comes from connections first made online.

  6. DrugMonkey says:

    One of the subtleties in this is the idea of using non-peer reviewed venues to (unfairly? Underhandedly?) advance your scientific viewpoint. Trying to win with popularity rather than data and arguments. The arsenic life story is a recent example, but it can take place with less sensational topics.

    • Janne says:

      On the other hand, if the arsenic paper had not been pushed into the highest profile possible journal, and had not been aggreesively marketed in the media, it could well have passed people by and still stand unchallenged in a more technical journal.

      When you invite attention to your work, you also invite scrutiny. On balance I think that’s a win, even in this particular case.

  7. psycgirl says:

    I began blogging about academia (and sometimes my research/science, but more my experiences in academia) in 2005 as a really socially isolated and confused graduate student. Now I’m a tenure track professor at a research-based institution. I would say academic blogging and reading academic blogs was one of the more seminal components of my training as a junior academic – by reading other blogs and receiving comments on my blog I learned invaluable lessons about teaching, administration, saying no, writing, reaching goals, being productive, grant writing, reviewing, etc etc etc etc. (Not to mention I received a ton of support I needed!). Very few of those lessons were taught directly by my advisors as a graduate student. So while my comment isn’t directly about the self-promotion aspect of your post or the comments by Berg, I think science/academic blogging can be really a priceless way of socializing junior scientists and academics into the field. I’m a better academic because I’ve been involved in the blog community.

  8. biochembelle says:

    Forgot to add to post – Heather Doran, who was blogging for ASBMB, wrote up some summary and comments on the session too.

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  12. Pete says:

    I would argue that most blogging involves an element of self-promotion but one could say exactly the same thing about writing scientific articles. What really worries the Scientific Establishment (including the publishers of scientific journals) is the ability of bloggers to review articles publically and discuss science in an arena that the Establishment cannot control. With apologies for some unavoidable self-promotion, I’ll point you to a blog entry that was inspired by an intemperate attack by a journal editor (who really should have known better) on scientific bloggers:

    http://fbdd-lit.blogspot.com/2011/04/short-rant-about-journal-editors.html

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