Poll: What constitutes “self promotion” in science? (UPDATED)

In a comment on a recent post, Jeff Ollerton notes that “self promotion” means different things to different people in science, and that its meaning has changed over time as well:

The “self promotion” issue really is an interesting one, in part because it means different things to different people. To some, having any kind of public profile as an academic amounts to self promotion: a colleague tells a great story about his PhD supervisor taking up a junior post at an Oxbridge department in the early 1970s. On his first day he was taken to one side in the Senior Common Room by a couple of older colleagues who said “We see that you publish your research. That’s not the sort of thing we encourage in this department…..”

Clearly those days are long gone! But what actually constitutes “self promotion”?

Good question Jeff! Let’s ask the readership, to get some discussion fodder. Below is a little poll asking your views on various activities that might be considered “self promotion”. It’s very quick–for each activity you just have to indicate if you approve (i.e. you don’t consider it “self promotion”, at least not in a bad way), disapprove (i.e. you consider it “self promotion” in a bad way), or have mixed feelings. (UPDATE: Several commenters have quite reasonably objected to the way the poll defines self promotion as a bad thing. I struggled with how to handle that without making the poll over-complicated; see the comments for details. Perhaps I blew it; sorry. It’s too late to redo the poll, but let me just make clear here that one of the things I hope we’ll talk about are the ways in which self-promotion can be a good thing rather than a bad thing. And let me also emphasize that I’m genuinely curious what folks think about that issue and don’t have super strong opinions myself. This poll was emphatically not intended as a “push poll” to try to steer readers towards the view that “self promotion”, however defined, is always and everywhere a bad thing.)


26 thoughts on “Poll: What constitutes “self promotion” in science? (UPDATED)

      • Oh, I didn’t mean I was avoiding commenting on Judith’s site specifically (I’d never heard of it before), I meant I was avoiding commenting on the whole Kardashian index kerfuffle.

      • “I avoid commenting on Judith’s site altogether, it’s a bit of a troll-fest.”
        …and the Pope is “a bit” Catholic Jeff. It’s amazing what some academics do once they get tenure.

        Anyway I’ll offer up my definition, which is that self-promotion is at work whenever your intention is to draw attention to yourself more than to an actual scientific topic at hand. Which in turn means there’s nothing wrong with discussing your own science papers as long as you do it with the broader topic in mind.

        I’d also like to take this opportunity to request votes for Science Blogger of the Year if I could.

      • “and the Pope is a “bit” Catholic Jeff”

        It’s called British understatement, Jim🙂

        I’d agree with your definition of drawing more attention to yourself than too the science.

  1. Doesn’t this poll implicitly assume all self-promotion is bad? There is no “this is a perfectly acceptable form of self promotion” option. Letting a colleague know that you recently published a paper that is probably of interest to them is certainly self promotion, and I don’t think anyone would find it unacceptable. Or am I totally misreading this?

    • I struggled with how to handle this. In the end, I decided to keep things simple, and for purposes of the poll defined “self promotion” as a bad thing. It just seemed complicated to try to write a poll that would ask, of a range of activities, both “Is this self-promotion?” and “Is this activity good or bad?” But as I say, that was purely for the sake of having a simple poll.

      • The solution seems very simple to me: Transform the first column to read: “This is a fine sort of self promotion” instead of “This is fine–it’s not self promotion.”

  2. I agree w colinaverill; the poll is biased in implicitly assuming self promo is bad. It largely isn’t. Most self promo – e.g., outreach, blogging, sharing work output, data, etc. – is exactly what we should be doing as public servants and employees.

  3. Your poll choices conflate “self promotion” and “wrong”.

    With very few exceptions, all of our jobs are to uncover and communicate knowledge to society. If we have discovered some fundamentally important truth, one of the most serious derelictions of duty that could be imagined, would be to fail to adequately communicate that. Simply putting the facts “out there” and saying “well, they’re not getting it, their loss”, betrays the public trust, and is a misuse of the resources that our institutions and funding agencies place in us.

    As such, sometimes, self-promotion is absolutely necessary. Like it or not, people, even scientists, respond to people, personalities, fashions, etc. As such, the answer to many of your questions should be “This is clearly Self Promotion, and, it’s part of my job”.

    • Thanks for the good comments William. I think your comment and John’s get at one of the reasons why the topic of “self promotion” is controversial. Like you, I too want my work to reach the right audience. And while I don’t do much outreach myself, I certainly believe in it’s value. And you’re absolutely right that a high profile can help your work reach the right audience and get them to take it seriously. In other words, self promotion can be a means to a socially-valuable end. But of course, there are also less socially-valuable ends to which self promotion is a means, and sometimes self promotion even gets treated as an end in itself. For instance, each of us probably wants a successful career and would enjoy many of the perks and rewards that come with a high profile. And in order to enhance my own chances of personal success, I might well engage in all the same communication and outreach activities you describe (and some others too). And heck, maybe that’s a good thing, depending on whether you judge an action by the effects it has vs. the reasons for which it was undertaken. I don’t have any answers here. And I *definitely* am not arguing that we shouldn’t do outreach, or that we should never do things that have the effect of raising our profile! I’m just trying to identify some of the root sources of disagreement here. I suspect a lot of it comes down to how people weight the different effects that a given action has, and how much people weight the effects an action has vs. the motivations for which the action was undertaken.

      Sorry you didn’t like the poll. As I said above in response to another commenter, it was merely intended as a simple conversation starter, and I think it’s managing to serve that purpose despite its admitted limitations.

  4. I also agree with colinaverill. If you think blogging/tweeting/emailing your own work is an acceptable form of self promotion then you can’t fill in the survey.

    You also can’t fill it in if you think blogging/tweeting the work of others is an acceptable form of self promotion!

  5. I’m willing to bet there’s a generational trend to what’s seen as ok and what’s not.

    I also imagine that in this fiercely competitive environment that if you’re not doing a large number of the above, you’re not going to be successful.

    And, I wonder if there’s a gender difference — I’d bet women are less likely to see self-promotion as a good thing.

    • As soon as I finalized the poll, I thought “Oh nuts, I should’ve also asked a question about gender.” Because I suspect you’re right that there’s a gender difference. For instance, I seem to recall some data that men are more likely than women to self-cite, though the difference is small (sorry, can’t recall well enough to link).

      • Don’t know if you are referring to this study, which still seems to be work-in-progress (first read about it this spring): King et al. 2014. “Gender and self citation across felds and over time”. http://www.eigenfactor.org/gender/self-citation/SelfCitation.pdf.

        The manuscript shows a fairly clear gender difference in self-citation rates, which has widened over time, and also shows data for individual fields. For ecology & evolution the men to women ratio in self citations is 1.44. It also seems like we have high rates of self citations in general, when compared to other scientific fields (see fig 2).

      • Thanks for the link Tobias. Honestly, I don’t even recall if that’s the study I was thinking of, but it’s good to have the link all the same. Data > anecdotes and hunches.

  6. Pingback: Self-promotion in science: poll results and commentary | Dynamic Ecology

  7. What about “other-promotion”?

    I see many of us doing a lot of that, and suspect many trust that if we do good work it will likewise be promoted by others. And that we would less favourably view folk that engage only / preferentially in self-promotion.

    This is relevant to gender gap. Women are less likely to self-promote than men, but are just as effective as men in other-promotion. (The relevant studies are in Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, though I think this might refer to the same or similar http://hbr.org/2003/10/nice-girls-dont-ask/)

    • Good question re: other-promotion. That would be good for a follow-up poll, I think. Do you talk up your students’ work to others, nominate your postdocs for awards, try to write them reference letters that are as positive as possible without lying…

      Here at Calgary, I used to sit on our department’s student awards committee. It was a pain, because all the faculty clearly felt it was their job to help their students get scholarships. All reference letters for all students were uniformly glowing, and all students were marked on the reference form as being in the top 10% of all students whom the prof had ever encountered. Which is mathematically impossible, unless the quality of students in our program is going up by leaps and bounds every year!

      Re: gender gap in self-promotion, as soon as I set up the poll I realized I should’ve included a question asking for gender. Thanks for the link to the Adam Grant book.

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