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, Science, and PNAS) of being “tabloids”, and sometimes favor reforms that supposedly 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 reviewer find one of your “other” results more interesting or important than your “main” result. Have you ever discussed the implications of your results 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–there is. 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 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? Think again. It’s not that evil tabloid journals (or evil granting agencies, or evil heads of department) 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 can’t and shouldn’t get rid of salesmanship in science. We’re human.

Note: this is a lightly-edited version of a post that first ran back in 2012.

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

  1. There is definitely a long gradient between under-selling a piece of work and over-selling it with hyperbole, and I think that ultimately the acceptability of “salesmanship” comes down to the individual personality of the scientist. I know we’ve talked about this before in relation to post-publication “promotion” of research, and I have a post from almost a year ago on the topic: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/what-do-academics-do-once-the-research-is-published/

    But ultimately if a scientist doesn’t believe in the significance and importance of their own research they are reliant on current peers or future generations discovering it for themselves, or possibly not given the volume of work currently being produced by different fields. For example, if you search All Databases in Web of Science for pollinat* in 2014 it returns 6,067 items = 16.6 items per day. Who in my field has got time to assess 16 or so papers a day to see whether or not they are “significant” or “important”? Judgement calls have got to be made at some level.

  2. I completely agree (although perhaps many of us *would* be happy writing Abstract-Methods-Results-only papers).

    Doesn’t seem a bit of a shame, though, that salesmanship has such a strong influence on the success of people and their ideas? If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but sell it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job. If you do mediocre science, but are good at selling it, you’ll likely do relatively well.

    I’m not saying this issue is unique to science (it isn’t), but I wonder how much having to be very good in two areas (science AND salesmanship) means that we lose out on people (and their ideas) who are good in just science.

    • Salesmanship can certainly move peoples careers up or down a bit, but I’m not sure it can entirely or predominately change the trajectory of somebody’s career. I can think of some very big names that are terrible at self-promotion yet are well recognized (both informally and more formally eg by award committees). Conversely, I can think of plenty of people that sell themselves really hard and don’t make it that high. Your body of work counts for a lot in science fortunately.

      • I’m not sure I agree with y’all here. Early in your career, one or two papers — and what journals they’re in — can make a big difference between getting a job or not. One big fellowship can make a huge difference. One big grant can make a huge difference. Especially these days. I agree that once you’ve hit tenure-track, it might not matter so much (and especially if you’ve had decades to make yourself a reputation). But in the grad-student and post-doc world, with so many people competing for so few positions, I think salesmanship matters a whole lot. (I say this all as someone who hasn’t done any ground-shaking science, but is a pretty good salesman.)

        As for “If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but teach it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job.”

        Just not true. Very few postdoc positions, almost no government positions, and very few R1 assistant prof. research positions care whether you have evidence that you’re a good teacher.

        And “If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but write it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job.”

        Writing is highly correlated with salesmanship. Almost all the salesmanship that matters (papers, grant proposals) is in written form. I’d say if you’re a good writer, you’re like a good salesman, and vice versa.

      • “What Brian said. Salesmanship, and various forms of self-promotion, have at most a minor effect on people’s career trajectories.”

        – I may disagree here. A comparison should be made among scientists with similar skills (broadly speaking). Given similar and high skills, selling one’s work is pretty important in my opinion, and maybe should be considered part of the scientific skills. The correlation should be seen at the level of population, as we all know certain people and know other people.
        It reminds me of the usual discussion going on in sports, in which the athlete says that the “mind” is the most important attribute of the successful athlete. Sure, if you go fast enough (skills), it helps (selling one’s work), but if you do not have the skills/talent, selling the work makes a small difference.

        Personally, I used to sell my work more strongly in the past. Now, thinking about the researcher’s degrees of freedom, the large number of false positive that are pretty much statistically inevitable, the understanding of science (and ecology even more) more as a conversation than a series of successive, definitive discoveries, I am much more reluctant to strongly sell my science (and I also tend to write longer papers that present in great details both the rationale and the analyses). I am not sure it is helping me.

      • If I understand your post correctly, Jeremy, you’re arguing that we shouldn’t worry about about salesmanship being part of science. I guess my main point is that we don’t know how much we should worry about it. If it’s a problem, then great potential scientists are being lost early on and we don’t even know who or what we’ve lost. Lots of stochasticism early on, as you point out, and ever more so. “It’s only one of many influences,” doesn’t work for me as an argument. So is gender.

      • @Margaret,

        Well, all I can say is that reviewers, editors, search committee members, etc., already try to distinguish between good communication and bad sorts of salesmanship. And in my experience they mostly do a pretty good job of it. And it’s not clear to me how a substantially better job could be done. If you want substantially less stochasticity, well, how exactly do you propose to achieve that?

        Evaluating science and scientists involves making judgment calls on which there’s scope for, and in fact is, reasonable disagreement. That’s the ultimate source of stochasticity–we all disagree with one another on topics on which there’s scope for reasonable disagreement. So ultimately, the only ways to cut down on stochasticity in our evaluations of science and scientists are (i) somehow force everybody to agree on exactly what bits of science are best, or (ii) stop evaluating science and scientists (e.g., as with radical proposals to give a research grant of the same size to everyone with a PhD).

    • If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but sell it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job.

      If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but teach it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job.

      If you do amazing science (or have the potential to), but write it poorly, then it’s unlikely to get much attention and you might not get a job.

      I don’t see much difference between these three sentences.

      • @pheidole:

        As noted above in reply to Margaret, your salesmanship of your science (which includes but isn’t limited to the quality of your writing about it) has at most a minor effect on your career trajectory in most cases. As Brian noted, there are many prominent ecologists who are great scientists but poor writers–but there are no prominent ecologists whose fine writing covers up for mediocre science.

        Now, hypothetically, I can imagine someone who’s *so* bad at presenting their work that their great science goes unrecognized. Something like that may be happening in mathematics at the moment–a mathematician who claims to have proven a major theorem hasn’t managed to convince anyone else (or even get anyone else interested enough to go to the considerable effort of checking his work) because he’s unusually terrible at explaining his work (see http://mathbabe.org/2015/12/15/notes-on-the-oxford-iut-workshop-by-brian-conrad/ for details). But (i) the mathematician in question is already very prominent, and (ii) this is very unusual. Very few people are *so* bad at presenting their work as to *seriously* cost themselves career-wise.

      • “your salesmanship of your science (which includes but isn’t limited to the quality of your writing about it) has at most a minor effect on your career trajectory in most cases.”

        That’s an “at most” modifying an “in most cases”. 0.8*0.8=0.64

        To “sell” is to convince someone to make an investment. That breaks down into having 1) a sound product that is 2) valuable *enough* for someone to read, award, hire. A large component of “salesmanship” is thus to communicate not only that the product is sound, but that it deserves attention relative to other sound work. Something that becomes all the more important in an era of the information firehose.

        “Now, hypothetically, I can imagine someone who’s *so* bad at presenting their work that their great science goes unrecognized.”

        Yes, but you are taking your argument to the extreme by adding “great” to your criterion. Success in any career is the product of the intrinsic content of the work and the perceived value of the work. One would presume that the very best folks rise to tenure despite their communication skills. But I suspect, based on the comments in this thread, there is little objective data on the subject.

        {Cue sound of shoe banging on the podium}

        I suggest that it is *not hypothetical at all* that bad communication sinks careers. Papers don’t get published, grants don’t get awarded and job seminars don’t come to fruition if the work and its value, is not communicated well. It’s just that this filtering quietly begins in grad school, proceeds through post grad, and concludes in the pre-tenured.

      • Sorry, pheidole, I’m not sure if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me. And for some reason you seem to be bothered by my perfectly ordinary word choice. And I’ve already had one go at clarifying, a second would serve no purpose. So I’m afraid I don’t think it would be productive for me to engage further. Thanks for commenting, perhaps other commenters will want to continue the conversation with you.

      • Jeremy, I think you can find so few examples, because these people end up leaving science. It’s a self-fulfilling argument.

      • I think the concept of good communication and salesmanship (which in this context might be less confusingly thought of as self-promotion) are being intertwined too much.

        I agree wholeheartedly that good science poorly communicated is not going to work either for one’s career or science. I imagine everybody on this thread (all of whom I think of as first rate communicators) would agree. And people who e.g. can design a wicked experiment but can’t communicate do get filtered out in the science pipeline. So do people who can’t communicate AND can’t design experiments and that is not a bad thing.

        But I can think of scientists that are great scientists, great communicators but terrible self-promoters (@pheidole you can probably guess one of the people I am thinking of). And on the whole I think their career success is much more correlated with their science/communication skills than their self-promotion skills. That to me is a satisfying fact, and much less true in say the business world.

      • @Brian:

        “I think the concept of good communication and salesmanship (which in this context might be less confusingly thought of as self-promotion) are being intertwined too much.”

        Yes, thank you for saying this. The very gradient I identified in the post seems to have been derailing this conversation a bit!

      • “Jeremy, I think you can find so few examples, because these people end up leaving science. It’s a self-fulfilling argument.”

        – This is very true, there is certainly a selection bias. For each position nowadays, there are at least 10 to 20 people that are very qualified for the job. I have the suspicion that some very notable scientists that are sub-par (i.e., terrible) communicators/sellers of their work wouldn’t have the same chance to go on with their scientific work nowadays.

  3. I had the interesting experience of teaching to a group of PhD students that included a couple of biochemists. I was struck how matter-of-fact their papers were – those they were writing and those they chose to bring to a discussion group – very much just “Abstract-Methods-Results.” The point of much of the work was to isolate compounds or determine the 3D structure of a protein. Often the discussion section was just a few sentences amounting to a “yep, we did it.” Any description of the importance of their work was also short: “We know this protein is important in such and such a function but we don’t know it’s structure.” There really was no attempt (need?) to connect to any sort of broader narrative or grander body of work. Of course, these aren’t Science and Nature papers and subjective decisions are made but, gosh, I just couldn’t believe how much easier it would be to write these kinds of papers. They are just nice chronologies of techniques applied and outcomes obtained.

  4. “I think you’d have nothing but a Methods section and a Results section, for starters.”

    This is hyperbole, but after you correct for that, there’s nothing wrong with a paper being primarily methods and results. It’s more honest that way. One of the benefits of places like PeerJ or PLOS ONE is that you have the benefit of being honest about your data; there’s no need to spin it or exaggerate its importance to get it into a journal.

    • And then how do you filter all that stuff and decide what to read? Honest question. Because personally, I don’t read anything in PeerJ or Plos One unless I happen to hear about it by accident *and* I’m given some other reason to think it worth reading (e.g., it’s by someone whom I know does good work).
      The main thing PeerJ and Plos One accomplish with their editorial policies is to displace the task of evaluation from pre-publication to post-publication. That has some useful features–hopefully it cuts down on publication bias, for instance. But in many cases it also just makes work for readers. Which isn’t a big deal if you know exactly what you’re looking for and can do a search. But if you’re just trying to keep up with the best work in some broad area, it’s not easy to filter through Plos One or PeerJ to find the nuggets.

      • The reason you don’t hear about much in PeerJ or PLOS ONE unless someone tells you about it isn’t a matter of salesmanship or impact. It’s because they’re megajournals that publish material from a broad range of disciplines. So no one follows them closely because most articles published are not relevant to what most potential readers study. Even if you use PLOS ONE’s browse feature, it’s difficult to narrow it down to articles that are relevant.

        But print is essentially dead at this point, so there’s no reason that “traditional” discipline-specific journals like Molecular Ecology couldn’t go online-only and increase acceptance ratios to take articles based only on soundness. One major reason they don’t do this is that they want to protect their impact factor. So ME determines for us in advance which articles are important and therefore which ones we should cite. The articles end up being visible largely because they’re published in a “good” journal like ME, so from the journal’s standpoint, it’s just self-reinforcing protectionism. From the author’s standpoint, it means that you had better be able to cook up some kind of impact for your paper if you want to get it published somewhere “good”, which is why the literature is replete with scientists overselling their research and fabricating just-so stories.

      • “But print is essentially dead at this point, so there’s no reason that “traditional” discipline-specific journals like Molecular Ecology couldn’t go online-only and increase acceptance ratios to take articles based only on soundness.”

        Nope. I don’t read what’s published in Ecology and Evolution either, except in the same circumstances in which I read Plos One papers. It’s not just a matter of needing subject-specific journals. It’s a matter of needing *selective* subject-specific journals.

        You can shift around where that selectivity happens, but you can’t eliminate it. Do away with selective journals, and people will just recreate them in a different form: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/selective-journals-vs-social-networks-alternative-ways-of-filtering-the-literature-or-po-tay-to-po-tah-to/

  5. Hi Jeremy, I also think there’s a big difference between inflating the importance of your work – creating flash from little substance – and seeing the real connection between a (superficially) minor result and a ‘big’ question. The ability and willingness to make connections where few see them can often be interpreted as salesmanship and making a big deal out of little or nothing but for some scientists I have known it has little to do with salesmanship and a lot to do with insight. Cynical attempts to make your research seem more important than it is are, I suspect, much rarer than the sincere belief that your research is more important than people recognise. Jeff.

    • Very good comments Jeff, I mostly agree (and I suspect the places where I slightly disagree aren’t real disagreements, just places where I’d phrase the point a bit differently).

  6. I suspect how people feel about someone’s “salesmanship” is often a product of how they feel about the person. If we like them, we’re more likely to think they are a dynamic speaker and captivating communicator of their science (in whatever fiorm). If we think the person is an a-hole, then we turn up our noses up at their obnoxious self-promotion.

    Hesse had it right, I think. “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part yourself. What isn’t part ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

    • Hmm…except that in this thread I think people are mostly talking about attitudes towards hypothetical strangers. So while I think there’s something to that Hesse quote, I think what’s going on here is more like:

      “I am a fine communicator, passionate and eloquent about the importance of my work.

      You wave your arms about ‘broader implications’ in the last paragraph of your Discussion sections.

      He is a snake oil salesman.”

  7. Two thoughts: To me it’s self-evident that marketing one’s research plays a large role in success and career path. To other’s here, it’s self-evident that it’s only a small component. We all think we’re right and anecdotes aren’t reliable data. I’m also surprised no one has brought up bias in sales*man*ship, both on the selling and receiving end. Perhaps our perception that it’s not broken/there’s nothing to fix reflects some of this bias.

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