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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Why Scientists Should Publicize Their Findings- for Purely Selfish Reasons

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Recent debate over the role of scientists in public outreach efforts has been heated, to say the least. Some say scientists should make more of an effort to engage with the public on science-related issues, which is fair. Some say scientists have no business doing outreach work, because that’s not what they’re trained to do. Also fair. Some say it would be great to do outreach, but they just don’t have the time. You can’t argue with that.

I want to highlight some purely selfish reasons that scientists should engage in at least one kind of outreach – publicizing their findings. And I’m focusing on selfish reasons because scientists are, we can all agree, human. We could talk about the need to inspire the next generation of scientists or addressing the paltry state of science literacy, but if we’re going to ask people to take time away from other obligations we’re going to have to do better than that. We need to explain what’s in it for them.

First off, what do I mean when I talk about publicizing research findings? I mean anything beyond publishing those findings in a peer-reviewed journal. This is important because, for most disciplines, there are multiple journals that publish work in the field. Each journal has multiple issues per year, consisting of multiple articles. From talking with researchers, it’s clear that it is virtually impossible to read all of the relevant literature in one’s field in any sort of timely way. That limits impact WITHIN the field, to say nothing of potential interdisciplinary work. Anything we can do to remedy this, by making research findings more broadly accessible (in terms of both language and visibility) would be a good thing. That’s the altruistic reason.

Here are a few reasons for the self-interested scientist to promote his or her work – reasons that can support his or her work moving forward. To be clear, these are all things that have actually happened. While all of these things don’t happen every time someone makes an effort to promote his or her work, these are not purely hypothetical benefits.

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.

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. It helps give agencies the political support they need to get additional funding in the future. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, uses its Science360 site to share a wide variety of science stories – including stories about research findings that weren’t funded by NSF. Obviously the work that you do under a grant is paramount, but doing a good job of publicizing that work will also stand you in good stead with the agencies. Yes, program officers notice.

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 sometimes 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 lead to the next potential benefit…

Creating opportunities for formal collaborations. I can think of several instances where publicizing the findings of one research project has led 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. In case you haven’t noticed, words like “interinstitutional” and “interdisciplinary” are increasingly popular with the folks who review grant proposals these days. Funding is thin on the ground, and opportunities to participate in viable grant proposals are valuable.

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 (AKA press officers, flacks, etc.), let them know about forthcoming findings in a timely way. They can help. If you’re interested in social media or blogging (and many aren’t), that can be an effective way to take your science to the people. If you have friends or colleagues who have been successful in promoting their work, ask them how they did it. You’re scientists. You can figure this out.

Maybe you find these arguments compelling. Maybe you don’t. But the fact remains that outreach is important, and that obstacles exist that make it difficult for scientists who WANT to do outreach to act on that impulse. So let’s stop finger-pointing and start proposing solutions.

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Photos: North Carolina State University

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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