How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Against Promoting All of Your Research

Theoretically, the number of ways you can use Twitter equals the number of ways of being in the world.

But most of us will never see all the exciting ways researchers and scientists now use Twitter as a fundamental part of their networking, collaboration and outreach.

And that’s not just because it’s a lot of activity. It’s because scientists who tweet often still feel compelled to obscure that activity — especially if they’re academics.

The grain of scientific culture in some disciplines and quarters still runs against public engagement…or anything so frivolous as trying to network outside of a conference hotel happy hour.

In defiance of the old guard, though, many scientists step out to sing Twitter’s praises upon request (these calls come at least multiple times weekly, at least to #ScienceTwitter), and fall with knives on those who dare attack the platform as beneath the scientific calling. And they also say and tweet things like this with some regularity:

I know: cheerleading, wagon circling, signaling, rope-line profiling and battle-line drawing are all part of social media group identity formation. Welcome to Twitter.

I also know: doing science can be persistently lonely, especially if you or your research are socially or disciplinarily or otherwise structurally marginalized.

I further know: it must be enormously comforting to find common cause among strangers and feel, through the magic of social media validation, those connections turn into something like intimacy.

But…no:

I looked up Eli Perencevich. He teaches epidemiology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa, where he also directs two centers on various aspects of medical access & delivery research and evaluation. Until recently, he’s also a long-time blogger. He’s clearly a serious researcher, and committed to communicating his research. I assume his intentions in sending the above tweet are ultimately constructive — to encourage more science communication and networking.

However:

  • Promoting your science doesn’t make your science more valid.
  • Promotable science isn’t inherently better science.
  • Promoting your science might make you a more effective scientist, by connecting you with other scientists or collaborators, or getting you speaking gigs.
  • Then again, that promotion or communication might also not yield much of anything, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with scientific effectiveness.
  • It also probably won’t get your research more impact, if you don’t have a strategy for doing so that extends past the research. (Or Twitter.)
  • Scientists who think their research is worth communicating are sometimes right.
  • But they’re more often wrong, as I tweeted. A skilled research communicator should always be able to tell you.
  • And you do a fundamental disservice to research and researchers when you try to shame researchers into promoting every piece of research they produce.
  • That shaming dynamic — which of course is far too prevalent on Twitter, is to many people the essence of Twitter — is unrealistic, inefficient and ultimately disillusioning to researchers, who will come to see Twitter as just another place where others are mysteriously getting attention while they aren’t.
  • It also can incentivize bad science — by skewing researchers, funders and journals toward seeking and publishing promotable results.

Takeaway: Really good marketing and communications is founded on saying “no” to most possibilities and making a few bets on the opportunities that overlap with the requirements for promotional success — including pressing problem in the world, audience appetite for research-driven solutions or insight, capacity to promote, and ability to generate other kinds of content for non-specialists in support of the research to form a campaign.

Your organization’s communicators and researchers should be having conversations and strategy sessions early and often about forthcoming research and which might warrant those promotional bets. Not about how to pretend everything deserves communications love.

So R-E-L-A-X. The future of science doesn’t rely on manically promoting all science. Be strategic. Going from not promoting any research to promoting all of it won’t really take us anywhere.