Understanding is a lot like sex. It’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.Frank Oppenheimer (as cited in Girod et al., 2002, p. 575)
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I challenge you to find a member of higher education who has not hear of the phrase “publish or perish”. Whether our immediate supervisors push this mantra or not, we all know if to be true. “Grant reviewers can’t read, but they can count” I have been told by a mentor, implying that the committees reviewing my status as a researcher may not take the time to review the quality of my work, but they sure will place judgement on the number of manuscripts I’ve published in peer-reviewed journals.
I think it’s just as universally recognized that publish or perish is not a sustainable mantra to live by, nor one that maximizes benefit for society over the individual, yet it is pushed in higher education just the same. While in theory, this concept may seem to spur great productivity, instead what often results are publications that are so obscure, context-specific, or just plain obvious, that they may not have been worth the time or effort required to get paper to publication. I’ve seen firsthand when scientists make the argument that, yes, it seems like everyone in the field is aware that z will occur when you add x and y, but no one has published it yet and so it’s ripe for the picking. However, is spreading this information to a field that already recognizes it to be true worth your time and resources to run the experiments and the publishers time and resources to review and print it? Maybe, if it’s a foundational concept. But if this is something that has already been assumed for decades, then maybe you are providing some level of comfort to other researchers, but for the most part, you have not enlightened society on the whole or provided a new platform from which new work can develop.
Of course, there certainly are topics that seem obscure and are hard to pinpoint a direct and immediate application for. In fact, some of my own work may fall into this category, and indeed, many advancements have been made with relatively old findings that technology was simply not ready to utilize yet. My concern is that the argument that “this will be useful to someone eventually” is a very easy façade to hide behind, and authors should sincerely consider how meaningful each “quick” publication is to society as a whole.
How should we use social media as scientists in academia? I honestly don’t know. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the subject, and there certainly seem to be a lot of theoretical benefits to existing in the social media realm as a scientist. My own personal experience suggests some platforms may be more useful than others, and I have definitely lost more time than I would like to admit scrolling through media, telling myself it’s not a waste because, after all, I only follow scientists, so this is basically work, right? Wrong, but we’ll get to that.
“Social Media for Scientists”, printed in Nature in 2018, neatly laid out some pros and cons of using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to disseminate research and interact with one’s colleagues. I thought it made many good observations of possible benefits of these platforms, including:
- Sharing recent or insightful publications
- Hearing conference goings-on without necessarily attending, via live tweets
- Finding collaborators
- Lively discussions with colleagues in your field
- Posting job openings
As I said, these are all well and good in theory, and are in fact reasons I joined Twitter in the first place. But I have to admit, this may be the point at which this blog becomes a rant, because I don’t feel like I have benefitted in any of these ways. I must also preface this by noting that the current social media-verse is saturated with political drama, which in my opinion is valid even for science outlets to be publishing because of the denial of the current administration to face scientific facts. However, this definitely limits my ability to scroll through social media without getting lost on political tangents and eventually being completely diverted from science. I imagine this to be a transient phenomenon, but it is nevertheless one that steers me away from using Twitter to disseminate scientific information.
Additionally, not all fields are conducive to social media. I’m not exactly sure why yet, but cardiac electrophysiology (molecular or clinical) simply does not have much of a presence in Twitter or elsewhere. Is this because the majority of the field’s leaders are relatively old men? Perhaps. In any case, while I love reading about all kinds of science, I find very little content from my own field, which makes it even harder to justify the endless scrolling. Other fields, particularly neuroscience, that have “sexy” figures and lot of bright, colorful imaging techniques, as well as a massively growing community and a diverse, youthful population of PIs, seem to have much more success in social media.