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.