Researchers are not obligated to publicize their research findings – and they shouldn’t be. Some people enjoy public outreach. Some people don’t. But those who are on the fence should know that there are very practical, selfish reasons to publicize their work.
I wrote about this on Scientific American Blogs several years ago, but thought it was worth revisiting the issue. A lot of the basic ideas haven’t changed, but I’ve added some new stuff – and included links to a lot of supporting information.
One thing that hasn’t changed is what I mean when I refer to “publicizing research findings.” When I use that phrase, I’m talking about anything beyond publishing those findings in a peer-reviewed journal or presenting the work at a professional conference.
Researchers already have a lot of responsibilities: grant-writing, lab work, writing papers, preparing presentations, working with grad students and post-docs, being grad students or post-docs, having a life outside of work, etc. So – why add publicizing research findings to that “to-do” list? There are a lot of reasons.
Boosting scholarly impact metrics. While h-index and citation rate are deeply-flawed metrics of scholarly impact, they are still widely used by universities and other employers in assessing the performance of faculty and other researchers. And there’s significant evidence of a correlation between publicizing research findings and both h-index and citation rates. I’ve written about it here, here, and here – so won’t go over it all again. Correlation is not causation, but given the range of studies that have found this correlation it’s well worth noting.
Making funding agencies happy. There’s a reason that most grant proposals include a section asking how you plan to disseminate your findings. Most federally funded agencies want the public to know about the work they are supporting. The National Science Foundation, for example, has made clear that it expects grant recipients to communicate with the public about their work. And the NSF is not alone. Funding agencies around the world make outreach a priority. And while we’re at it, it is worth noting that publicizing research findings can play a role in ensuring that governments continue to fund scientific research.
Informal networking. You want other people in your field, and in related fields, to know what you’re doing. I can think of dozens of examples of scientists who have been contacted by researchers at other institutions after publicizing their work. Sometimes it’s just a pat on the back, which is nice. But very often those contacts can include tangible benefits, such as proposals to share data that will advance the efforts of all parties involved. These contacts can also include a lot of questions and ideas, which may lead to…
Opportunities for formal collaborations. Publicizing the findings of one research project can lead to an invitation for a researcher to be part of a new or emerging research project. Very often these take the form of interinstitutional and/or interdisciplinary grant proposals. Words like “interinstitutional” and “interdisciplinary” are now almost necessities for securing grant funding. And with funding thin on the ground, opportunities to participate in viable grant proposals are valuable.
Finding grad students. Good graduate students make your lab better. But those students won’t apply to be part of your program if they don’t know you exist – or if they’re not aware of how their field of interest overlaps with your field of interest. I’ve worked with researchers who have told me how grad students have applied to work in their labs after first reading about the work those labs do in mainstream media outlets.
Getting interest from the private sector, policy makers and non-governmental organizations. Not every research project will be of interest to these groups – and not every researcher wants to work with them. But they can be valuable. For example, if new research findings have ramifications for bridge-builders, landfill operators or policy-making bodies that oversee those fields, it makes sense to get that information into the hands of people who can use it as quickly as possible. The findings may not be ready for immediate application. They may simply offer a glimmer of possibility, which needs to be explored further. But getting that information into the broader world creates opportunities for research partnerships (and potential funding) that may not otherwise come to light.
And publicizing your work doesn’t have to be particularly time consuming. If you work for an institution that has public information officers (like me), let them know about forthcoming findings in a timely way (i.e., as soon as you get your acceptance notification). If you have friends or colleagues who have been successful in promoting their work, ask them how they did it. You’re scientists and engineers. You can figure this out.
Maybe you find these arguments compelling. Maybe you don’t. But the fact remains that outreach is important, and obstacles exist that make it difficult for scientists who WANT to do outreach to act on that impulse. If you don’t want to engage in publicizing your work, that’s fine. But please don’t do anything to belittle those researchers who do.
Note: all of the things I listed above are things that have actually happened to faculty that I’ve worked and that I have firsthand knowledge of. While all of these things don’t happen every time someone makes an effort to promote his or her work, they are not purely hypothetical benefits.