Online reputation: necessary, but not sufficient

Several weeks ago, András Paszternák, was giving a talk on scanning probe microscopes at the Technical University of Budapest, Hungary. In the break after the lecture, the audience fell into a busy discussion. But not with each other: “Almost everybody had a smartphone in their hand,” says Pasternak, who is a research fellow at the Research Centre for Natural Sciences at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, adding: “There was no discussion between the students; they just checked their newsfeed on Facebook.”

Social connections, of course, are a key part of being a researcher—all the more so as science becomes increasingly collaborative. Much of scientific success—in both intellectual and career terms—is down to finding the right mentors and collaborators. Networks are a resource as much as any other. Specifically, scientific social networks conjure up online interaction, via a website designed specifically for that purpose that encourages researchers to post details of their professional and personal life. The sites call this sharing; another name for it would be self-promotion. So how important to academic success is cultivating your profile online?

At present, perhaps not so much. Surveys suggest that a relatively small proportion—somewhere around the 10% to 20% mark—of researchers use social media such as twitter, Facebook and blogs as a professional tool. The same goes for social networking sites tailored to academics, such as Academia.edu, where, as of early last year only 4.1% of European highly cited researchers maintained a profile. Not surprisingly, younger scientists are more likely to use such sites.

Growing online academic presence

For the majority of academics yet to engage professionally with social media, it is probably better to do so sooner rather than later. “I was running a session where a professor said that whenever someone applies to him, he looks them up on ResearchGate, and if they’re not there it sows a few doubts in his mind,” says Sarah Blackford, head of education and public affairs at the UK Society for Experimental Biology, who is also a plant biologist at the University of Lancaster. Building up an online network takes time, she says, but those who neglect to do so may be left behind.

ResearchGate announced it had 3 million members in June 2013; the numbers for Mendeley and Academia are similar. While still most popular in the US, it “has the potential to be like an academic Facebook”, says Mike Thelwall, professor of information science at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. He is also a co-author on the study of researchers’ social media habits cited above. But it’s far from the only option.

Thelwall, for example, has been involved in developing an improved way for researchers to record their achievements and impact—including most tweeted articles—as part of the EU-funded Acumen project. It focused on how, in the digital age, researchers are evaluated by each other and their institutions. Recognizing that these days a list of published papers may not reflect a researcher’s true achievements, the project has produced the Acumen Portfolio—a kind of CV 2.0, which can record all manner of impacts, including most-tweeted papers.

Popularity contest

Scientists looking to improve their online profile need to be aware of the pitfalls of oversharing. They should also exercise some caution in how much they put on the web. “Science networks are full of spammers and fake profiles; always check whom you send information, and don’t show too much from your ongoing research,” urges Paszternák, ,who set up a social network for nanotechnology researchers, Nanopaprika, back in 2007. It now has 7,000 members in more than 80 countries. He thinks the boutique networks will form a symbiotic relationship with the behemoths.

Obviously, online social media is a tool to make contacts and bring your work to others’ notice. In the competition for attention, that’s big—and it will surely become bigger as the digital natives take over.

Even so, it would be a mistake to treat online reputation building as something different from general reputation building. For one thing, these are new technologies; they are not new aspects human nature. For another, the distinction between online and offline social activity is becoming ever less meaningful.

True, some researchers—at all levels from postgrad to professor—are exceptional users of social media. British physicist and BBC star Brian Cox and US astrophysicist and science communicator Neil de Grasse Tyson each have over a million twitter followers. And blogging has given early career researchers in particular a powerful new way to build an audience for their work. But the stars in these arenas tend to be skilled communicators in general, and often have sidelines in writing or broadcasting.

Network quality

For the majority of researchers not interested in reaching a mass audience, it’s the quality of their networks that will be important—who they connect to, not how many. For a materials scientist, say, a single connection on Nanopaprika might be worth a thousand Facebook friends.

Besides, a lack of opportunities and connections is one reason, outside financial constraints, why researchers from countries in Eastern and Southern Europe struggle to compete with those in countries with a better-established, better-connected, research sector, according to Mike Galsworthy, health researcher from UK-based University College London, and commentator on EU science policy. As a remedy, the Germany-based Max Planck Society has set up the Teaming Excellence initiative, which is aimed, partly, at improving networks by pairing institutions in East and West.

All in all, the essence of a good reputation is not about visibility per se—it’s about getting people to say nice things about you behind your back. Studies of how reputations are made have found that great—or for that matter, terrible—deeds go unnoticed without the gossip and social networks that bring them to others’ attention. This is a rather different skill to imposing yourself on someone’s attention. And it still requires attributes and skills that are not yet available as an app.

John Whitfield

John is a London-based science writer and the author of People Will Talk: The surprising science of reputation

Featured image credit: Rawpixel via Adobe Stock

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