We’ll never get rid of “salesmanship” in science (and wouldn’t want to)

An exchange with a commenter on whether a recent Science paper only got published, and subsequently widely hyped in the science media, because it was oversold, got me thinking about the notion of “salesmanship” in science more generally.

There’s a widespread view, I think, that salesmanship is always and everywhere a bad thing. In an ideal world, the quality of the science itself would be the sole determinant of which papers we all pay attention to, and which ones we ignore. Those who hold this view also sometimes accuse leading journals (especially Nature and Science, but in ecology also Ecology Letters) of being “tabloids”, and sometimes favor reforms that putatively would reduce or eliminate salesmanship. For instance, having referees only evaluate manuscripts for technical correctness rather than things like “novelty”, “importance,” or “interest”. Or perhaps even doing away with pre-publication review entirely in favor of letting the “crowd” or the “marketplace of ideas” identify what’s most interesting or important.

I don’t entirely disagree (well, I do completely disagree with the idea of doing away with pre-publication review). But I do want to push back, by questioning what exactly “salesmanship” is. I don’t think salesmanship is a black-and-white thing. Rather, I think there’s a pretty smooth, continuous “salesmanship gradient”, one end of which shades almost imperceptibly into basic good practice in science communication. Which isn’t to say that a line can’t or shouldn’t be drawn somewhere. But I think it’s awfully difficult, and more than a little arbitrary, to decide where to draw that line. (And if you try to define “salesmanship” differently than how I’ve defined it, I think what you’re effectively doing is trying to draw the line by definition, which isn’t kosher–it amounts to simply assuming where to draw the line, rather than arguing for where to draw the line)

My view on salesmanship in scientific papers is the same as my view on showmanship in scientific presentations. Like salesmanship in papers, showmanship in scientific presentations often is bemoaned. But if by “showmanship” you mean “any aspect of your presentation which isn’t strictly dictated by the science, but instead serves solely or mainly to capture and hold the audience’s interest”, then showmanship is surely a good thing, at least up to some difficult-to-define point. Looking around the room rather than reading your talk is showmanship. (Don’t think so? Then why don’t you read your talk? You’d be able to describe your science more precisely that way.) Showing a pretty picture of your study organism is showmanship. Telling a joke is showmanship. Even presenting your material in a logical order so that your talk “tells a story” is showmanship. Strictly speaking, none of that stuff has anything to do with science per se. It’s sole purpose is quite literally attention-getting.

Much the same can be said of salesmanship in papers (and grant proposals). For instance, have you ever explained in the Introduction why you asked whatever question you asked (i.e. why it’s an important or interesting question)? That’s salesmanship. If you were being purely objective, you’d just state what question you asked, without offering any reasons for doing so, since strictly speaking those reasons can hardly be considered purely objective. Have you ever presented some of your results as the “main” results, talking about them first in the Results and Discussion, and talking about them at greater length than “other” results? That’s salesmanship. After all, it’s not like we can measure the relative importance or interest of your various results, the way we can measure temperature or mass. Indeed, you’ve probably had the experience of having a referee or some other reader tell you that they found one of your “other” results more interesting or important than your “main” result. Have you ever suggested that your results have implications for some larger issue, like how we study question X, or how we address policy problem Y, or our perspective on topic Z? That’s salesmanship. The larger implications of your results depend on lots of implicit and explicit assumptions, none of which, strictly speaking, are part of the objective scientific content of your paper. Have you ever concluded a paper by suggesting “interesting directions for future work”? That’s salesmanship. Etc.

I’m all in favor of salesmanship, at least up to a point. All of us got into science, and care about science, for reasons that ultimately aren’t, and can’t be, fully objective. Policymakers and the public care about science for reasons that ultimately aren’t, and can’t be, fully objective. I’m not trying to make some deep or controversial philosophical point here (so in the comments please don’t hassle me on what ‘objective’ means). I’m just saying we can’t decide to do science at all, much less decide precisely what science to do and how to do it, without making a massive number of explicit and implicit judgment calls, none of which are fully objective. Trying to present our science as if that wasn’t the case isn’t just impossible, it’s dishonest. Not to mention incredibly boring!

Imagine trying to do away with salesmanship entirely. Try to imagine writing a paper that includes nothing that serves any purpose other than than objective reporting of results. I think you’d have nothing but a Methods section and a Results section, for starters. And even that doesn’t quite do away with all forms of salesmanship, as you can still do things like fiddle with the order in which you present your results. Heck, even deciding what results to include in your paper and which ones to omit (e.g., because they’re “boring” or “tangential”) is a form of salesmanship. So is deciding whether to write a bunch of short papers, or one big paper. There’s nothing objective about your science that dictates that decision. It’s dictated by presentational and professional considerations: Would several short papers or one long paper more clearly convey the message I want to convey, and which would look better on my cv (which is how you “sell” yourself to those who might hire you)? Etc.

And then even if you did write such a paper, you know what would be the first question you’d get from the first person to read it? Almost certainly something like “So, why is this work important? What’s the big take-home message here?”

I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as overselling your results. I’m just saying that there are no clear bright lines here, or even any dim fuzzy lines. It’s a gradient. Unfortunately, the mere existence of the term “salesmanship” tends to prevent us from seeing that, because whenever we have a term for something we naturally tend to think of that something as relatively discrete and well-defined, rather than as one end of a continuum.

The above explains why I think any reform designed to reduce or eliminate salesmanship  is doomed to fail. You think “salesmanship” would vanish if we got rid of “tabloid” journals, or told all referees to stop evaluating the “interest” or “importance” of papers? Nah. It’s not that evil tabloid journals are forcing authors and referees against their will to write about and evaluate non-objective things like “interest” and “importance”, as evidenced by the fact that even PLoS ONE papers talk about the interest, importance, and other non-objective aspects of the work they report. The bottom line is, no scientist actually wants to write or read, and no non-scientist wants to hear about, salesmanship-free science, even if it were possible to produce such science. Everyone has reasons why they think their work is interesting and important, and everyone else wants to hear those reasons. There’s no changing that. So if you prevent people from engaging in some currently-existing forms of salesmanship, they’ll just find or invent other forms.

So sure, if you think paper X was oversold, say so and explain why. Discussion of particular cases is how all of us learn to make reasoned judgment calls about what constitutes too much salesmanship. But if you think there shouldn’t be salesmanship in science at all? Sorry, but we’ll never get rid of salesmanship in science, and we wouldn’t want to. We’re human.

23 thoughts on “We’ll never get rid of “salesmanship” in science (and wouldn’t want to)

  1. I agree.

    You tend to phrase the question around SHOULD we get rid of salesmanship. But you sort of hint at the more fundamental question of COULD we get rid of salesmanship. And as long as it is human beings doing the science instead of computer-based artificial intelligence, we could not. Or put in other words, it is impossible to decouple the use of language from advocacy. Word choice, word emphasis, word order, everything has influence on the hearer. Language evolved to let us influence and be influenced by members of our social group – it didn’t evolve to let us communicate Newton’s Laws. So then it becomes a frequency dependent problem. If other people are selling their ideas, should you “take the high ground” and not sell yours? I don’t think so.

    And I strongly agree with your point that we wouldn’t want to eliminate all selling. I wouldn’t want to read a paper that didn’t contextualize things for me. That is a help, a service. Business are quick to point out that selling (while self serving) is also a service to customers – it lets them know about new products, product differences etc. While most business selling quickly crosses the line to obnoxious, I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where sales people were extremely helpful. We tend to write those off as “not selling” but actually most sales people know that is the highest compliment when the customer doesn’t even think of what they’re doing as selling. Science is no different.

    I’ve got limited time. So if you want me to allocate my most precious resource – time – for your idea, you better sell it!

    • Thanks Brian. I actually meant the post to be about both the “should” and the “could” here, although I was also trying to hint that the two are impossible to completely separate in this case.

      I really like your analogy to business salespeople, and our reactions to them–wish I’d thought of it! I think it’s spot on. When we find the selling helpful, we tend not to see it as “selling” at all.

      I intentionally avoided the issue of frequency-dependence. I don’t think that’s about whether or not we engage in any salesmanship at all. I don’t think “zero salesmanship” is possible to achieve under any circumstances. But there certainly is a frequency-dependent element to the realized level of salesmanship. If everyone else is “selling” pretty hard, then yeah, it might be hard for you to “take the high ground” and engage in less salesmanship. Of course, there are forces pushing back against that tendency for the level of salesmanship to ratchet up over time, in particular the need for referees and editors to “buy” whatever you’re “selling”. Just as a “hard sell” often is counterproductive in business marketing, it often is counterproductive in scientific papers.

  2. Presenting your research accessible and entertaining sure is a good thing, so if you call this “selling” I don’t mind, but I don’t see any societal value or justification for overstating the importance or generality of research to make it more attractive. This creates a classical moral dilemma – it is initially beneficial for you (and the journal), but ultimately it only creates an arms race between authors and journals that isn’t of any societal benefit (at least I can’t think of any). Of course, in a world that has a certain level of (over)selling, the individual rationality still dictates to (over)sell as much as the next person, or even more if you can get away with it, so you can say it’s naive to think about a world without this kind of selling, but I don’t think this serves as a justification.

    • I get the sense that you think you’re disagreeing with me? Which confuses me a little, since as far as I can tell you’re actually agreeing with me. As I said in the post, I do think there’s such a thing as overselling. And as I said in my response to Brian, I agree that there are incentives for authors to oversell (though there are also forces that push back against those incentives). But none of that shows that there isn’t a gradient from ordinary good scientific communication to overselling, and none of that tells us where to draw the (necessarily somewhat arbitrary) line between acceptable selling and overselling.

      Where to draw the line is a judgment call. I think discussions of where to draw the line in particular cases are essential to all of us–that’s how we as individuals, and as a scientific community, exercise good judgment, and learn to exercise good judgment. Much as judges, in deciding particular cases, individually and collectively both exercise, and learn to exercise, good judgment in the interpretation of the law. I just think it distorts those discussions if we pretend that there are clear, bright lines when in fact there are none, as if “salesmanship” was some distinct kind of thing that only happens in press releases and Nature papers. The first step in learning to make good judgment calls is to recognize that you are in fact making judgment calls.

      • The confusion may be that I wasn’t sure what you guys exactly think of when you say “selling”. Or rather, it seems to me that your definition of selling is that this is the level of “enthusiasm” that is considered normal in the respective community.

        I agree with what you say from a practical viewpoint – the most practical strategy is probably to observe/negotiate the behavior of selling in your peer group (after all, there are considerable cultural differences as well) and adjust appropriately.

        However, fundamentally, I don’t think the line between selling and overselling is a judgment call: I must have a true, honest opinion about what my results mean and how important they are. If I present this opinion in a way that maximizes it’s impact (good presentation, nice figures, post on my blog), no problem. However, I don’t see any societal benefit arising from presenting my research as even slightly more important and general than I personally think it is – it might be unavoidable that individuals are doing so to improve their position, and they might get away with it depending on what is considered “normal” in their peer group, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a virtue.

      • It’s not just about enthusiasm (the author’s, or anyone’s) about the results, though that’s part of it.

        And it’s not about honesty either, at least not mostly. As you say, as an author you may well sincerely believe that your work is really interesting and important. I’m sure that’s usually the case. For the most part, I don’t think authors sit around saying “I think my paper sucks, but if I’m honest about that I can’t get it published. So how can I put some lipstick on this pig and convince a leading journal that it’s a movie star?” 😉 But even if your opinion about the interest or importance of your work is honestly-held, it’s still your opinion. Others may legitimately differ, in a way that they can’t legitimately differ with, say, measurements of mass. Actually, I’d say it’s your judgment, because saying it’s your opinion has the connotation that it’s inherently personal and thus totally arbitrary, like a preference for rock music over rap, or chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

  3. Sorry Jeremy, but I don’t agree with much of this *at all*, nor do I think it’s a very important topic in the first place, and not sure why you would waste any time on it.

    Seems to me that you have a very liberal idea of what constitutes “salesmanship”, which is to say, basically every decision one makes in writing a paper.

    This viewpoint also seems to be at diametrical odds with your strong views on the importance of fundamental research for its own sake. Fundamental research is, by definition, not focused on glamorous topics, but rather on nuts and bolts understanding of fundamental forces and objects, patterns and processes. It’s often tediously mathematical, with a significant component of description involved. It can be boring, but boredom, like beauty, is in the mind/eye of the beholder.

    Nobody’s arguing that humans need to be robotic computing machines. But the goal of science, being that it is a branch of philosophy, is objectivity. Objectivity sells itself, it doesn’t need a salesman. Getting to the truth is its own reward, regardless of who, or how many, “buy” it. If you start trying to peddle everything, you end up a businessman. I didn’t go into science to be a businessman.

    • The point of the post is to argue that “salesmanship” isn’t qualitatively distinct from non-salesmanship. It’s all just decisions we make in deciding what to do, how to present it, and how to convince others that they should care. Clearly I didn’t convince you, and you still see “salesmanship” as a qualitatively distinct class of thing–that there’s a clear, bright line between “salesmanship” (bad) and non-salesmanship (good). Not sure how to elaborate or rephrase my argument if you didn’t find the original post convincing, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      The fact that I do indeed find fundamental research valuable isn’t contradictory at all. As I said in the post and in replies to Florian Hartig, that I think there are judgment calls involved at every point as one does science and then publishes it doesn’t mean I think those judgment calls are arbitrary. Any more than Supreme Court decisions are arbitrary. There are widely (although perhaps not universally) agreed general principles as to what constitutes too much “salesmanship” (or what constitutes an unconstitutional law), and what doesn’t. Further, those principles aren’t just arbitrary, they’re grounded in history, philosophy, and in other ways. But applying those general principles to a particular case is a judgment call, because there’s often legitimate disagreement about things like which general principles apply in a particular case, what to do when different general principles conflict, etc. One can and should give reasons for one’s judgments (e.g., why this bit of fundamental research was worth doing), and there may well be better and worse reasons.

      I think you have a rather different vision in mind of what comprises “fundamental” research than I do. Fundamental research can be “glamorous”, and typically is not just tediously descriptive. A lot of the ecology that gets published in Science and Nature is fundamental. But I don’t want to get into this further because it’s off topic.

      True, nobody’s arguing that humans need to be, or could be, robots. I’m merely arguing that what it means for humans to “sell” human science has been mischaracterized. Trying to imagine what it would be like for a fully-objective robot to try to do and publish science (undesirable and impossible) was part of my attempt to get readers to stop thinking of “salesmanship” as a qualitatively distinct type of activity. Again, I clearly failed to convince you.

  4. “…That’s salesmanship. If you were being purely objective, you’d just state what question you asked, without offering any reasons for doing so, since strictly speaking those reasons can hardly be considered purely objective.”

    I’m sorry but that’s just complete nonsense. Explaining why you addressed a particular question is simply explaining to the reader why the question is considered important–a placing of the study in some context, in case they are unaware of the issues involvved. Doesn’t mean in the least that you’re “selling” anything.

    • Well, “nonsense” seems a bit strong to me. “Claim with which I strongly disagree” seems more like the phrase you were looking for. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉

      Don’t really have anything to say that I didn’t say in reply to your previous comment. If there was something specific about the post that I thought you misunderstanding, or if I thought there was some reason why you weren’t “getting” it, I’d try to address it by rephrasing my argument or giving different examples or something. But as best I can tell from the comments, you’ve basically understood what I was trying to say and just found it totally unconvincing. So we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Sorry about that.

      • The fundamental confusion for me really, is that I still have basically no idea what you mean by the term “salesmanship” in the first place. It seems to me that you’ve conflated that terms with lack of objectivity, human interactions when speaking to a group, and perhaps some other things. I just really don’t know what you’re driving at here.

      • I basically mean any decision you make about the conduct or presentation of your science that isn’t dictated solely by the science itself, but instead is dictated at least in part by the desire to capture or hold the attention of the audience.

  5. OK, I just went back and re-read the various examples you give for what constitutes salesmanship and I just simply do not agree with your assessment on the matter. I mean, basically, everything one does is science communication is salesmanship the way you’ve defined things, as far as I can tell.

  6. I would prefer to use terms objective and subjective or positive or negative in this discussion. I agree with Jeremy that all what is done in science and all other subjects produces results that we necessarily evaluate using some (ethical) sets of criteria. Whether the set of criteria is objective/subjective is always a matter of question. That is why science is about selling or saying what is positive or negative too. As in other areas of life so in science too, selling is done both through the content as well as through the form.

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