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Twitter is the House

Say “brand” or “branding” (or “marketing”) to most scientists and researchers, and they’ll probably fall into a sneezing fit — so strong is their allergy to these concepts.

One of the great things about Alex Danco’s essay “Can Twitter Save Science?” is how easily Danco demonstrates that branding is not just part of but integral to the business of science — and how job scarcity and power have created a system that basically begs young scientists to make end runs around it through a platform like Twitter.

But how do you know your investment in Twitter is enhancing your chances at one of those scarce jobs?

The world of science Danco sketches is bleak. The actual research is done largely by an “elastic middle” of postdocs — an ever-expanding pool of cheap labor, all chasing after the holy grail of the few open faculty positions available every year.

To win one of those positions, postdocs must publish in high-impact journals — it’s the single proof point of suitability for employment the marketplace of science recognizes. And if they want to publish in high-impact journals, they must work in labs for PIs on projects that give them a good chance to be authors on those high-impact journal papers.

The entire business model of academic research is leveraged on this constraint. It’s why postdocs get paid so little, and therefore, why postdocs have ended up as the industry workhorses. The sheer amount of output that they have to produce inflates how much research gets published, which in turn makes getting into those top tier journals even harder.

The real shame in academic publishing, if you ask me, isn’t Elsevier’s 35% profit margin on journal subscriptions. It’s the much larger amount of money, time and influence that is regressively taxed from the young scientists, to the old ones, in exchange for nothing but brand access. So long as journal access remains the yardstick that matters, then no matter what legislation gets passed or conventions get tweaked, I doubt that the overall structure of the ecosystem will change that much. It’s bad for science, and by extension, bad for all of us.

(Elsevier had a net profit margin in 2018 of 19%, to be fair. And to be very fair, that 19% was twice that of Netflix’s margin for the same year, and just under Apple’s 21%. Huh.)

So postdocs are trapped in a casino, furiously betting; and journals and PIs are the house. But Danco’s notion of regressive taxation is important to hold on to, though, as we consider his argument for Twitter as an end run around science’s restrictive marketplace.

For Twitter to “save science” in the way Danco intends, scientists have to use it to build brand capital that actually translates into jobs. And Twitter certainly seems as it could facilitate that kind of dynamic — as Danco argues: “People can get to know each other so much more easily now, increasing the likelihood that smart scientists who ought to find each other actually do.”

But here’s some skepticism on that prospect, sent to me by a list member and veteran Science Twitter warrior (quoted with permission):

Really appreciated your post yesterday. One thing that lingers is a seeming assumption that twitter power translates to power in a job, which I don’t think is true much of the time. I have been fascinated watching a group of young female scicommers work to get each other thousands of followers. Only time will tell (like a decade or two unfortunately) whether any of that helps career-wise. I have talked to so many grad students who are overwhelmed by needing to create a brand on top of everything else. Strange times.

For sure something is going on but I agree that perhaps Danco’s not quite immersed enough in it to see the analysis through. But I do know that I see a real disconnect between twitter power and institutional power in academia (and some think tanks, NGOs etc.). Then there are the govt people who can’t speak publicly at all…There was that one paper about twitter users getting more paper views but other than that I feel like it’s conjecture. What I can conclusively say is that people tend to assume that all exposure is good exposure and that is definitively not true from my perspective. It would be interesting to look at a few metrics of what success in that arena looked like and how they translated to other forms of traditional success in academia and other spheres.

Science mystifies the regressive branding tax it puts on post-docs. But Science Twitter — for all its benefits, including essential real-time peer review — mystifies the regressive branding tax Twitter places on its participants (the black hole of time, but also mostly) in exchange for, as my list member points out, a highly uncertain promise of aid in career advancement.

And, of course, for all its benefits, Twitter hardly provides a perfect marketplace of ideas or equitable access; the usual fault lines of power obtain here, too, obscured by the self-confirming communities we can use the platform to create. For instance: I’ve watched male analysts with scant academic credentials build up substantial followings on Twitter and translate those into beaucoup media opportunities. I rarely see female analysts with similar or somewhat higher levels of academic achievement do the same.

Absent studies that confirm broad material benefits for researchers from participating in the platform, we must assume: like science, Twitter is a branding casino, and Twitter is the house. It’s dark and addictive and disorienting, with a lot of flashing lights and noise. There are better and worse ways to play — but the odds aren’t posted, your bankroll is your time, and you must unfurl that bankroll over and over, with increasing intensity. You might win. It always wins.

If that sounds depressingly familiar — kind of like science — well, there is no escape from branding, and there are no shortcuts to building one’s brand. As Danco advises about Twitter’s prospects for upending the way science is done: “Just give it a few years.” Indeed.