Product advertising and marketing is the oil on the gears of our economies. Its original purpose is to inform the customers about products and help them to decide whether they fit their needs. But marketing today isn’t only about selling a product, it’s also about selling a self-image. What we decide to spend money on tells others what we consider important and which groups we identify with.
In the quest to attract customers, advertisements often don’t contain a lot of information, and sometimes they bluntly lie. And so we have laws protecting us from these lies, though their efficiency differs greatly from one country to the next as Microsoft learned the hard way.
Everybody knows adverts make a product appear better than it is in reality, that microwave dinners never look like they do on the images, lotions won’t remove these eye bags, and ergonomic underwear will not make you run any faster. The point is not that advertisements bend reality but as that advertisements work regardless, just by drawing attention and by leaving brand names in our heads – names that we’ll recognize later. The more money a company can invest into good advertisement, the more likely they are to sell.
It isn’t so surprising that capitalistic thought is increasingly applied not only to the economy but also to academic research. Today, tax-funded scientists, far from being able to dig into the wonders of nature unbiased and led by nothing but their interests, are required to formulate 5 year plans and demonstrate a quantifiable impact of their work. And so scientists are now also expected to market themselves, their research and their institution.
Scientific knowledge however isn’t a product like a candy bar. A candy bar isn’t right or wrong, it’s right for you or wrong for you, and whether it’s right or wrong for you depends as much on you as on the candy bar. But the whole scientific process works towards the end of objective judgment, towards finding out whether a research finding should be kept or tossed. Scientific knowledge is eventually either right or wrong and academic research should be organized to make this judgment as efficiently as possible.
Marketing science is not helpful to this end for several reasons:
- It puts at advantage those who are either skilled at marketing or who can afford help. This doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of their research. It’s not a useful selection criterion if what you are looking for is good science. Those who shout the loudest don’t necessarily sell the best fish.
- Marketing of science advertises the product (research results), while what people actually want to sell is the process (the scientist’s ability to do good research). It draws attention towards the wrong criteria.
- It has a positive feedback loop that gradually worsens the problem. The more people advertise their work, the more others will feel the need to also advertise their work as well. This leads, as with advertisement of goods, to a decrease of objectivity and honesty until it eventually nears blunt lies.
- It takes time away from research, thus reducing efficiency.
That’s why I hated Kuchner’s book. Not because his marketing advice is bad advice, but because he didn’t consider the consequences. If all researchers had Marc Kuchner’s “sell yourself” attitude, we’d end up with a community full of good advertisers, not full of good scientists. It’s the inverse of the collective action problem: A situation in which we would all benefit from not doing something (advertising), but each individual would put themselves at a disadvantage when behaving differently (not advertising), and so we all continue to do it.
Here’s why I changed my mind.
Yes, this is a bad development, but collective action problems are thorny. Complaining about it, I’ve come to conclude, will not solve the problem. But what we can do is work towards balance. What we need then is the equivalent of customer reviews and independent product tests – what we need is a culture that encourages feedback and criticism.
Unfortunately presently feedback and criticism on other people’s work is not appreciated by the community. Criticism is typically voiced only on very popular topics, when even criticism on other’s work is advertisement of one’s own knowledge, think climate change, arsenic life, string theory. But it’s a very small fraction of researchers who spend time on this, and it’s only on a small fraction of topics. It’s insufficient.
A recent nature editorial notes that “Online discussion is an essential aspect of the post-publication review of findings” but
“In recent years, authors and readers have been able to post online comments about Nature papers on our site. Few bother. At the Public Library of Science, where the commenting system is more successful, only 10% of papers have comments, and most of those have only one.”This really isn’t surprising. Few bother because in terms of career development it’s a waste of time.
In contrast to the futile attempt of preventing researchers from advertising themselves and their work however, the balance can be improved by appreciating the work of those who provide constructive criticism. By noting the community benefit that comes from researchers who publicly comment on other’s publications, by inviting scientists to speak not only for their own original work, but for their criticism of other people’s work, and by not thinking of somebody as negative who points out flaws. Because that consumer feedback is the oil on the gears that we need to keep science running.