Thursday, September 7, 2017

Academia and Social Media l WTF

I feel so outraged at the moment that I simply cannot not write about it. So here we go, this piece in Science last week:

Summary: Scientists should get / be their own social media influencers to popularize their research.

Great idea -- I already envision future tenure requirements: "The successful candidate has at least 50k Twitter followers and maintains a vast network of social media influencers."

Seriously? Are you shitting me?

That kind of bullshit is one of the reasons that drove me away from an academic career path before I even finished my PhD. I am so disgusted by it. And believe me, many people in academia are.

So what is the problem, you might ask. Very simple: if someone starts this kind of thing it quickly becomes the norm, up to the point that scientists will be evaluated against their ability to achieve social media reach. Don't believe me? Well, we already have seen this happening in science in the last 10+ years.
I am talking about "citation metrics", especially the infamous h-index. In many places it literally became the "gold standard" for evaluating scientists. Might it be for hiring decisions, tenure decisions or simply decisions on whether or not to grant a proposal. People will look at your publication history and judge it solely based on how well it has been received by others. Sounds all very reasonable at first, but turns out to be fatally flawed. Why? It promotes "hype research". If the metric I have to optimise to achieve my academic career goals (i.e. get a permanent position) is reach, I will engage in research that currently resonates with as many people as possible. Let me repeat this very slowly: people - will - engage - in - research - that - is - well - perceived. I don't know about you, but for me this rings a very loud alarm bell. This undermines the most important pillars of academia: intellectual independence and the possibility, even the obligation, to engage in unpopular research topics: to be an independent mind; to explore the unknown, the un-hyped. However, incentive schemes like the current ones, make this harder and harder -- especially for young researchers.
I know a couple young assistant professors who bluntly told me that for the next years they simply have "to play the game", do the research that their peers want and if they get tenured they'll be able to explore more freely. This is not utopia. It already is reality in academia. But even worse, once you engaged in "hype research" for six years, and let's say you were able to build yourself a reputation, do you think people will stop doing what they are doing? The apparent fame, the visibility, the invited talks, the citations -- it's basically the opium of science. And what you end up with is a bunch of attention whores, people who take themselves way too serious.

I know this won't resonate with everyone in academia. And it is good that it does not, as there are still academic communities where all of this is less pronounced. But still, a large portion of academia already went into this direction and in our fury to measure success, many others will follow. Also, given that there are way too less permanent academic positions for all the aspiring PhD students and PostDocs, the question on judging the potential of people is indeed a huge challenge. And there must be some kind of objective measure. I just don't think it's citation metrics, and for sure it's not social media reach.

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