Self-promotion in science: poll results and commentary

At this point we’ve probably gotten about as many responses as we’re going to get to our poll on self-promotion in science. Thanks to everyone who took the poll! Here are the results, with some commentary.

First, as a commenter noted, the poll defined self-promotion as a bad thing. That was purely for the sake of keeping the poll simple. It just seemed complicated to try to ask which activities are self-promotion, and which activities are good or bad things. Also, I wanted to focus on whether people approved or disapproved of these activities as self promotion, as opposed to for some other reason. For instance, some people disapprove of submitting to Science, Nature, and PNAS for reasons that have nothing to do with self-promotion on the part of authors (e.g., some people disapprove of publishing in non-open access journals). But the commenters who didn’t like the framing of the poll have a point. Heck, I personally think that some activities are good things despite their self-promotional effects, or even because of them. For instance, as another commenter noted, having a high profile can be an effective means to the end of getting policy makers and the general public to take note of important scientific information. As I said in the original post, the poll was merely intended as a conversation starter. I think and hope it served that purpose, but admit that a better-framed poll might have served the same purpose more effectively.

Ok, on to the poll results…

First thing that jumped out at me was the level of disagreement. There wasn’t unanimous agreement about any of the activities I listed. And for the large majority, there were at least a few people who thought it was fine and not self-promotion, and at least a few people who disapproved of it as self-promotion. And I don’t think that’s an artifact of the way the post was framed, although it could be in part. But there was much more disagreement about some activities than others.

  • Publishing in Nature, Science, or PNAS rather than a discipline-specific journal: A large majority (88% as of this writing) think this is fine and not self-promotion, with a large majority of the remainder merely having reservations.
  • Blogging, but not about your own work: 95% think this is fine and not self-promotion, with the remainder merely having some reservations. Probably not surprising, given that this was a poll of blog readers. 🙂 But I suspect that even if you polled more widely, you wouldn’t find too many people who think that merely having a blog constitutes self-promotion.
  • Blogging about your own work: As you’d expect, fewer people are ok with this than are ok with blogging about other things: 63% approve of this as not self-promotional, with 34% having reservations and 4% disapproving of it as self-promotion. Personally, I have reservations. That’s why I don’t blog about my own work, unless I’m using my own work as an example to illustrate a larger point or something. I wouldn’t feel like I was “adding any value” if I blogged about my own work. That would feel to me like “pure” self promotion, without any other purpose. Anybody who might want to read my papers already has their own ways of filtering the literature and doesn’t need me to point them towards my papers. And if anybody just wants to read a summary of one of my papers, well, that’s what the abstract is there for (and anyone who lacks the technical expertise to understand my abstracts probably isn’t going to want to read even a summary of one of my papers). But I hasten to add that I don’t have any problem with other people blogging about their own work. Different strokes for different folks and all that. Plus, if unlike me you’re blogging as a form of outreach to non-scientists, or to influence policy makers, you’re definitely going to want to write non-technical summaries of your work. That adds a lot of value for your audience. It also raises your profile, which is useful because that encourages your audience to take notice of the important scientific points you’re making.
  • Tweeting, but not about your own work: Not surprisingly, the vast majority of you (87%) don’t see tweeting as self-promotional in and of itself, and the remainder merely have reservations. And I’d be surprised if a broader poll of non-blog readers gave dramatically different results on this. Although it’s interesting that apparently there are a few of you who are ok with blogging as not at all self-promotional, but who have reservations about tweeting. Which puzzles me; I’d be curious to hear comments on this.
  • Tweeting about your own work: As with blogging, about 63% of you are fine with tweeting about your own work, with 34% having reservations and 4% disapproving of this as self-promotion.
  • Sending a pdf of your work to other people in your field: I expected this one to be controversial, and it was: 63% approve as not self-promotion, 24% had reservations, 13% disapprove as self-promotion. Personally, I’m not comfortable doing this, for the same reason I’m not comfortable blogging about my own work (only more so, because emailing someone seems more intrusive to me than putting up a blog post). I’d be curious to hear any anecdotes or data on how common this practice is. I think people have only sent me pdfs of their work like two or three times in my whole life.
  • Doing interviews for popular media: I’m actually kind of surprised this wasn’t more controversial, since there’s a stereotype that lots of academic scientists disapprove of anyone who has a public profile. But 81% of respondents didn’t see doing interviews for popular media as self-promotion. Which I think makes sense. After all, people who want to interview you usually come to you, not the other way around, so it’s “promotional” but not really self-promotion. The vast majority of the remainder merely had reservations.
  • Allowing your employer to send out press releases about your work: Almost exactly the same responses as for doing interviews with popular media.
  • Inviting big names in your field to your talk or poster at a conference: Another one that I thought would be controversial. Indeed, this was one of the most controversial practices on the list: 47% approving as not self-promotional, 35% with reservations, 18% disapproving as self promotional. Personally, I do occasionally invite people to my talks, and more often to my students’ talks. But I do so only when I (or my students) really want to pick someone’s brain or really want feedback from someone whom I think would be a really good source of feedback. I don’t do this just for the sake of increasing attendance at my talk or helping my students meet random famous people or whatever (“networking” for the sake of networking doesn’t do anything for your career). But motivations are slippery and hard to pin down, even to ourselves, never mind to others.
  • As a reviewer, suggesting that authors cite your papers: The first practice on the list that respondents mostly disapprove of: 41% disapprove as self-promotional and 52% have reservations; only 7% think it’s fine. Personally, as for other items, I think motivations are key here. I have occasionally suggested that authors cite my work, but only when I thought that it was a serious oversight for them not to do so (i.e. the same reason I’d suggest that the authors cite someone else’s work).
  • As an author, citing your own paper when other citations might be equally or more appropriate: Another practice respondents mostly disapprove of: 55% have reservations and 35% disapprove as self-promotional. Personally, I have reservations. I don’t like irrelevant self-citations. But on the other hand, it’s rarely possible or desirable to cite every relevant reference, so you have to pick and choose somehow.
  • Commenting on blogs, where the comments do not primarily comprise references to your own work: As you’d expect, people are mostly ok with this: 88% think it’s fine and not self-promotion, with the vast bulk of the remainder merely having reservations. And it may reassure the very small number of you who see this as self-promotion to know that it’s a very ineffective form of self-promotion, because many blog readers don’t read the comments. 🙂
  • Commenting on blogs, where the comment primarily comprises references and links to your own work: One of the most controversial practices, which kind of surprises me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. 38% see this as fine, 46% have reservations, 16% disapprove of it as self-promotion. I sometimes do this myself. Basically, if I find myself wanting to comment, but the comment is something I’ve already said elsewhere, I’ll often just link to what I’ve said previously. It just seems faster than typing it out again. And I don’t see why I should refrain from commenting at all just because I happen to have said something relevant previously. Although I would never comment on someone else’s blog just to say “hey, come check out my blog too!” or anything like that.
  • Tweeting about your own work to people who don’t follow you on Twitter: I expected people to be pretty negative about this, and they were. Only 17% approve, with 39% having reservations and 44% disapproving of it as self-promotion. This is somewhat like emailing a stranger a pdf they didn’t ask for. But I’d be curious to hear from, say, science journalists what they think of this practice. For what it’s worth, I think this practice is rare, but I wouldn’t really know as I’m not on Twitter (Aside: very occasionally, somebody will tweet something to @DynamicEcology asking us to blog about it or retweet it. I just ignore such requests. Our Twitter account is mostly just a robot we use to announce new posts.)
  • Nominating yourself for awards: This one and the next one were especially interesting to me because they were the only ones on which my own views are in a small minority. Only 18% of people (including me) think this is fine; 25% have reservations and 57% disapprove of this as self-promotion. I can certainly see why this would seem like self-promotion of the worst sort. On the other hand, I know from personal experience that awards committees often are short on nominations from any source and so would love it if people would nominate themselves (e.g., the ESA Buell and Braun awards often are surprisingly short on nominees). Far from being overwhelmed with frivolous nominations, they’re desperate for candidates–any candidates–to consider and so are more than happy for people to put forward their own names. Plus, I guess I don’t really see much difference between nominating yourself for an award and applying for a competitive grant or submitting a paper to a selective journal. In all those cases, you think your work might meet some high standard (e.g. it’s in the top X% of the pool of candidates), and so you ask others to judge whether it actually does. In other words, while I’d ordinarily hesitate to do something that serves no purpose other than to promote my own work, the existence of an award means that somebody’s saying “Hey, we want to honor and promote somebody’s work!” So given that other people have decided that they want to honor and promote somebody, that somebody might as well be you! Well, as long as you’re remotely competitive–I think it would be silly to waste an award committee’s time by applying for an award for which you’re obviously uncompetitive. On the other hand, people probably underestimate their chances at least as often as they overestimate their chances. Having said that, I’ve never actually nominated myself for an award, or asked anyone to nominate me.
  • Asking others to nominate you for awards: People are only slightly more ok with this than they are with the previous one: 23% think it’s fine and not self-promotional, 44% have reservations, 33% disapprove.

As I say, don’t take these numbers as gospel. And it’s certainly not as if anything that most people approve of is thereby ok, or that anything most people disapprove of is thereby not ok. The numbers are just to give you some rough sense of people’s views, as a starting point for discussion.

38 thoughts on “Self-promotion in science: poll results and commentary

  1. I filled in that I agree as well that it’s okay to nominate yourself for an award, like you. I have done it once, and nearly gotten it, which was the “New Phytologist tansley Medal”. If you go to the website it doesn’t look anything like “not-done” to just register for it yourself, so it never really occurred to me it was not what you were supposed to do (but of course for many prizes this is different). It also helps that you basically propose to write a review-paper there, on the basis of which you might win, so you are not just telling them how “awesome” you think you are. I would actually find it more awkward (and self-promoting) to ask someone else to nominate you….

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  3. Biggest surprises to me:
    – Number of people who don’t think it is OK to nominate themselves or at least have a friend do it – I’m totally with you on this one, Jeremy.
    – Number of people (even if in a minority) who actually think it is OK to use reviewing to push citations to their own papers even when more appropriate ones are available (although its a bit hold your nose I think its fine to do it if you genuinely believe it is the best citation – although you should try to discount your innate biases before making that decision). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given how often it happens to me as an author, but come on people. This is an indication to me that we’re failing in ethical training.

    • I was shocked at how many people don’t think it’s ok to nominate yourself for an award or even ask someone else to do it. I had no idea I was in such a small minority on this one. I hope somebody comments on this because I’m struggling to appreciate where folks are coming from on this one.

      • I agree! I’m surprised more people weren’t okay with this. I suppose this helps explain why so many awards are short on nominees.

    • It’s particularly shocking to me that people are *way* more ok with emailing unasked-for pdfs of their work to strangers in their field than they are with nominating themselves for awards.

      • Not nominating yourself for awards is a leftover of the monastic aspirations that in the old (not so old) times were popular in academia.
        Apart from citations, I do not see anything wrong in any of the things that may be seen as self promotion. Thinking that if you are good enough you will find a job/grant/increase your opportunity etc. is quite naive. For instance, I read blog post of people discussing their work in less technical terms. I never thought the should stop because they are self promoting.
        Or that other scientists should stop sending me pdfs of their work (even if I don’t know them and assuming pdfs are somewhat relevant for me) because, you know, they are not doing that for the greater cause, but because they are self promoting. Please send pdfs, no negative feelings on my part.

      • “Or that other scientists should stop sending me pdfs of their work (even if I don’t know them and assuming pdfs are somewhat relevant for me) because, you know, they are not doing that for the greater cause, but because they are self promoting. Please send pdfs, no negative feelings on my part.”

        That’s one on which people differ a lot, I suspect. I confess I mostly don’t appreciate being sent pdfs by strangers. Perhaps should’ve asked a poll question about that as well–do you mind when strangers send you unrequested pdfs of their work?

      • “I confess I mostly don’t appreciate being sent pdfs by strangers.”

        I suspect this might again depend on how it’s done. If a stranger says “Hi SoAndSo, I saw your paper XXX and I thought you might be interested in my (closely related) YYY paper,” it’s likely to be taken better than “Greetings RandomEmailRecipient, here is my YYY paper.”

      • @downwithtime,

        Yes, it is much better if people write a personal note explaining why they thought paper YYY would be of interest to me. But even when somebody sends me a polite note like that, I confess I still don’t find it useful. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never had the experience of someone sending me something that I turned out to be really excited about reading. The very few times people have emailed me pdfs of their work, it’s always been things that are only somewhat related to what I do. (Let me also say I’m not hugely bothered when this happens. It’s not like I think “You jerk! How dare you email me!”)

        I should also say that it’s different if the email isn’t totally out of the blue. For instance, there’ve been a few times when people who’ve read a post have chosen to “comment” privately by emailing me relevant papers of theirs. I’m fine with that, because by writing the post I’m inviting comments.

      • “Yes, it is much better if people write a personal note explaining why they thought paper YYY would be of interest to me.”

        That was a given. Also if they send me a paper published in the Journal of Aviation Transport I might find it not very useful. What I wanted to say is that maybe I don’t find the pdf usefule, but I do not judge negatively who is sending the pdf.

      • Just for the record, I was just emailed a pdf last night and was very glad to receive it. First time for everything, apparently. It was from someone I know personally, and it was a paper that heavily cites my blog posts.

  4. I occasionally write blog posts, primarily about my own work and experiences. I never considered this self-promotion because I write it for my family and friends to know what I am up to with research, travels, and life in general. Is this considered bad practice as a young academic? I know I may not be at a level in my career where I can influence policy makers with my research findings. However, I can spread my enthusiasm for science, and perhaps influence friends and family when they make everyday decisions relating to the environment.

    • Good point Relena. I suspect that many people who blog and (especially) tweet about their own work and experiences feel the same as you–they’re doing it for their family and friends. And maybe not even to influence family and friends, just as a way of socializing.

      I think the practice is sufficiently common that few people disapprove in a serious way (the poll says that only a minority even have reservations, and hardly anybody just disapproves). So if I were you I wouldn’t worry about it.

  5. Uh, I take back my comment on Brian’s post yesterday. Anyway, I think that there are some very good reasons to self promote. We are all (hopefully) good at what we do, but with so many journals and research outlets, and such broad disciplinary fragmentation, it’s possible that I do some good things that might be appropriate for someone outside my field, but they get missed because our keywords aren’t the same, or we’re looking for the wrong search terms. Frankly, I turn up lots of good articles that people self-promote, and usually self promotion provides a second window into the paper.

    To be reflective for a minute, I am definitely a self-promoter on my blog and on twitter, but it’s partly because I tend to be enthusiastic about what I’m doing and I like to share that enthusiasm, and I try to add a dimension to my work that is less technical in the blog posts.

    What worries me is how intense that disapproval might be. Scientists are entitled to promote their work as they see fit. We are a diverse group, but often have very strongly held opinions. Is the disapproval enough that they would refrain from hiring someone because of their twitter presence and use? Because of their blog posts? If seeing someone blog about one of their papers lowers the value of that paper in the disapprover’s eyes that could have serious implications. That said, I’m not going to change, and, looking back though my post history, I’m not actually as bad as I thought 🙂

    • ” Is the disapproval enough that they would refrain from hiring someone because of their twitter presence and use? ”

      I doubt it, for various reasons. In the poll, only a minority of people expressed reservations about blogging or tweeting one’s own work, and hardly anybody disapproved. In recent years, I know of several ecologists who are active bloggers (including about their own work in some cases), and more who are active on Twitter, who’ve been hired for tenure track jobs–Jarrett Byrnes, Jaquelyn Gill, Meg, others. NSF has now been requiring “broader impacts” for years, and for that and other reasons the stigma associated with doing outreach and having a public profile is fading. And finally, there are a *lot* of factors that search committees weigh when deciding who to hire, so I doubt that blogging or tweeting about your own work would materially affect your chances even if someone on the search committee didn’t think highly of it, just because it’s only one factor among many. See this old post:

      • I agree. I think we’ve used my blog fairly effectively for broader outreach, particularly with the Neotoma project, but also with PalEON. How much that has helped grant applications isn’t immediately clear, but it certainly adds an avenue for disseminating ongoing research. Regardless, I’m happy to bear the cost of (imaginary) disgruntled hiring committee members if it means I can continue to rack up valuable Altmetric points by constantly putting links to my own papers in my blog posts. I’m not going to use the smiley face again, but that last sentence is a joke.

    • I don’t spend a lot of time doing it myself, but I personally appreciate it when somebody leaves a reference to their own work in a blog comment so long as it is on topic and short and to the point (i.e. linking, not selling). I definitely appreciated all of the references on the blog yesterday (several of which were self referential). Its the people who go on for three paragraphs about how great their work is without ever giving a link or reference that bug me.

      This raises the larger point that couldn’t be captured in a poll – but how you do something (style) often matters more than what you do (even the most harmless forms of self promotion – e.g. aiming to publish in high profile journal – can be done in an obnoxious way and vice versa).

      • “This raises the larger point that couldn’t be captured in a poll – but how you do something (style) often matters more than what you do (even the most harmless forms of self promotion – e.g. aiming to publish in high profile journal – can be done in an obnoxious way and vice versa). ”

        That’s a great point. Very true.

      • Yes! This last point by Brian is the one I came to the comments to make. The way people tweet about their work makes a huge difference. I love the tweets where you can tell someone is really excited about something they just found. I would never consider that self-promotion. And I love hearing about new papers on twitter (it’s part of why I joined twitter in the first place), but it does feel more awkward if someone only ever tweets to promote work by their lab. So, I agree that how you do it — and how often (in a relative sense) — makes a big difference.

  6. Question: in light of the poll results and the discussion, it seems like we’re at the point where people who blog and tweet should just stop worrying whether the mere fact that they blog or tweet might affect their job prospects. Social media seems like it’s established now. And if there are a few people out there who still hate social media, well, there are a few people out there who think all sorts of things but you probably don’t worry about those people. You can’t let abstract worries about unlikely events (like “What if somebody on the search committee hates anyone with a blog?”) dictate your life.

    A corollary question: are many people all that impressed or intrigued any more by the mere fact that someone blogs or tweets? I’m guessing not. At some point, if enough people do X (or know people who do X), the mere fact that you do X ceases to be of much interest, positive or negative.

    Of course, how you blog and tweet will still matter, but that’s no different than for anything else you do.

      • Just guessing: people who don’t like blogging think of it as vanity publishing, an end-run around peer review. And people who don’t like tweeting think it’s a distraction and a waste of time, not understanding how people find it useful.

        But people who think that way because they’re ignorant of how people blog and tweet are increasingly rare, I suspect. It’s increasingly hard to just be totally ignorant of how blogging and tweeting are used. And at this point there are just too many people, including senior people, who blog and tweet for anyone to just dismiss blogging and tweeting, even if they don’t do it themselves.

        Of course, some of the people who still don’t like blogging and tweeting are senior and vocal, which I suspect causes the many folks who support blogging and tweeting to not quite realize that at this point they’ve more or less won the war.

  7. Seeing as you asked for feedback on the self-nomination issue, here’s my 2 cents. On the nomination question, have you looked (can you look) at gender or nationality bias? I recoil at the thought of self-nomination (or asking someone else to nominate) but have no idea whether it’s a conditioning thing. To my mind, blogging/tweeting constitutes the message “I think people should know about this” whereas self-nominating for an award sends the message “I am the BEST!” and a nasty witchy voice counters, “Don’t be arrogant! No one likes an uppity person!” (it’s not my mother, okay. She is a wonderful person. 🙂 ). Seems I may not be alone, which suggests that award committees ought to do some google searches if they’re so desperate for nominees. If they give people an email nudge that their work has been flagged as potentially award-worthy, it may be the incentive people need. A hesitant person concerned over perceptions of uppity-ness might then feel that they were “invited” to apply and accepting an invitation has much more polite, positive connotations than self-nomination.

    • Hi Jana,

      The poll didn’t ask about gender or nationality, so there’s no way to look at that. I’m kicking myself that it didn’t, because as other commenters have noted there are data indicating that women are less likely to self-nominate.

      I think you’re idea of gently nudging people to apply for awards is a good one. This idea came up in Meg’s old post on the NSF Waterman award:

      • I’m with Jana on this, I’d never consider nominating myself for an award. In fact I didn’t know that one COULD nominate oneself for an award, that’s how much I’d never considered it!

        It’s sort of been alluded to above but it’s worth repeating, that as far as I’m concerned by and large I’m not blogging for my scientific peers, I’m blogging for my students and for wider society. So when I discuss my own work it’s often with that audience in mind, not other scientists (though there are exceptions of course).

        Interesting set of results, Jeremy.

      • Whoa! That Waterman Award comes with some serious grant funds. That’s a shame if eligible people aren’t applying for that. Might be worth petitioning for some simple experimentation with the semantics. I’d be much more likely to “apply” for an award over “self-nominating” myself for one (and yeah, I’m not saying that’s logical but it *feels* different) and I would imagine it wouldn’t change the process much.

      • @Jana:

        “I’d be much more likely to “apply” for an award over “self-nominating” myself for one (and yeah, I’m not saying that’s logical but it *feels* different)”

        Hmm, interesting suggestion!

  8. Interesting questions you posed, sad I only see this after the closure of the poll!
    I am convinced that a bit of self-promotion is a good thing, so I was also a bit confused at first when it turned out that was no option in the poll :).
    I see it as a sad thing when your research would vanish in the depths of the mountain of scientific papers. You spend your time doing the research and write things you value as important, so if it does not get noticed, that’s a pity.
    So I think it is a good thing to give your research that little bit of publicity, to increase the chance it gets where it should get. Not too pushy, but enough so relevant people (both scientists and the broader public) at least have the chance to notice you did something interesting.
    We cannot expect people to read all possible papers out there, can we :)?

  9. I missed the original post (just back from holiday), but a couple of other questions I’d have liked to see here:

    1) Would you give a conference talk where you mention your own published material?
    2) Would you discuss your own work at an invited seminar (or keynote presentation)?

    I certainly see blogging about your own work as being analogous to the 2nd, except you reach a wider/different audience. Nobody forces anyone to read a blog, like nobody forces anyone to attend a seminar/keynote. They are all forms of promotion (heck, that’s what the whole point of scientific publication is), none of them are explicitly negative in my opinion.

    • As I was reading hashtags from #ESA2014 I was thinking exactly this. What is a talk if not self-promotion. Maybe the point is that it’s the ‘right’ kind of self promotion for some people, whereas blogs are the ‘wrong’ kind of self-promotion.

      I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that as a scientific community we’ve adopted blogs as a platform only recently, but we’ve grown up (academically) with lectures as a kind of lingua franca for self-promotion. We recognize that self-promotion is important, we explicitly tell students to go to conferences, to go to big conferences, to present, present, present. So students are constantly being told to hone their self-promotion skills, and are rewarded for it. . . unless they’re doing it on their blog.

      Which I’ll temper by repeating what Jeremy said earlier, that he’s never seen anyone explicitly use self-promotion as a reason to hold someone back.

      • “I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that as a scientific community we’ve adopted blogs as a platform only recently, but we’ve grown up (academically) with lectures as a kind of lingua franca for self-promotion.”

        That’s probably it. A lot of us are traditionalists to at least some extent, I guess. Including me!

    • @ Mike: In answer to your questions, yes and yes.

      The analogy between conference talks and blogging is an interesting one. People ordinarily talk about their own work at conferences, of course (or the work coming out of their lab groups). And they do so without a second thought, even though for ecology & evolution conferences there’s never any “peer review” to selectively filter the abstracts (other fields, like computer science, are different). So yeah, I’m not really sure why I’m perfectly happy to talk about my own work at a conference, but am uncomfortable blogging about it (to the audience I’m trying to reach; as I said before, I’d be fine with blogging about my own work for, say, public outreach).

      • When I was still blogging, I was almost more comfortable talking about my own work – in case I’d missed or misinterpreted something important in someone else’s!

        I’m pretty sure I’ve attended E&E conferences (e.g., BES) where abstracts have been filtered though. Whether this was just some very basic quality control (making sure you will actually fit into a certain proposed session), or more stringent, I’m not sure.

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