Serious academics take the media seriously


The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.

So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?

Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?

Here are some half-guesses:

  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because it is unimportant.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is just too important for laypeople to think about.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is too complex for the average person to comprehend.”
  • “I’m jealous of my colleagues because they have substantial things to say to the public, and I all that I’ve ever shared with the public is an anonymous spoilsport gripefest.”
  • “I think my colleagues are sharing insubstantial things to the public because they’re not as Important and Deep and Serious as I am, and I resent that their public engagement is positively affecting their career outlook.”
  • “I’m such a pedant that I feel the need to point out that ‘I am a serious academic’ is a clause, and not a phrase.”

(Am I missing an interpretation here?)

The piece in The Guardian is of hay bale construction, limited to two straw arguments. The first straw argument is that academics are sharing their work with the public to please our employers. You know, because academics are well known for doing things to please employers. The second straw argument against public dissemination of academic work is that the job market needs this as proof of “enthusiasm.” How is the use of social media tied to “enthusiasm” as a useful trait used by search committees? I imagine this PhD student would be rather surprised if they saw how these committees do their work.

This student, self-described as “perhaps naive,” is the archetype of the ivory-tower academic that does not deign to share their work with the public. This academic appears to be one of those folks who think that sharing work with the media somehow indicates work of a lower quality. (I knew that this was a risk of this site but I started it despite that kind of perception.)

When academics engage in social media, there are three audiences, all of whom are very important:

  1. Other academics
  2. An interested subset of the public
  3. The media

Being involved in social media as a scientist is useful for scientists to communicate with one another. It’s pretty common for productive collaborations to emerge from this route (I’ve had a few) and the cross-fertilization of ideas actually does happen. I’ve learned a lot from other scientists on social media, and others have told me that they’ve learned from me.

If you look at the non-academics who follow academic information on social media, this is not a random draw of people. It’s people who are already excited about this stuff. There are some people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook who aren’t academically researching topics related to my work, but are just into things like ants, ecology, rainforests, higher education, and whatever other stuff I share. As an academic, interacting with the public is my job, and social media allows me to do this more and better. Growing an effective outreach agenda can’t happen overnight, and some people are way better at it than others. But if academics showing “enthusiasm” for their research to the public is a bad thing to you, then you’re a total Grinch.

We can take our work seriously without taking ourselves seriously. And we must recognize that the things that we work on, while all-encompassing to ourselves, are obscure inanities to most of the public. By communicating broadly, we’re making what we do come to life to people who otherwise might dismiss it. Which makes a big difference when I’m sitting across the table from someone who somehow got the idea that eating transgenic foods is dangerous to one’s health because of a NOVA episode. (Which I find boggling how that happened, as I heard yesterday) If I’m an ivory tower “serious academic,” then my credibility with this GMO-fearing person is actually nil, because I’m out of touch and my university degrees and pedigree don’t mean a thing. But if my voice is heard and respected by members of the public outside the university — for better and for worse — that increases my credibility.

Even if you eschew social media because it’s somehow insipid, it might be worth being involved because this is a gateway to dissemination through more traditional media. Do you want your stuff in newspapers and high-visibility websites and on TV? Then get on social media, because one is the gateway to the other. When writers and reporters are looking for experts that are willing to engage with the public clearly and, yes, enthusiastically, then they’re looking at social media. The line between being a “professional Instagramer” and “valued source for mainstream media” is mighty blurry nowadays.

I have no idea if I’m a serious academic. I think what I do is consequential enough that I can’t keep it to myself and my little cabal of scientists. That’s why you’ll find me with hundreds of other ecologists tweeting under #ESA2016, from the Ecological Society of America meeting in Florida this week. (That is, if my delayed and rescheduled and messed up flights ever get me there, as I write this from the airport.)

If you think we’re putting academic work on social media to please our university or to appear enthusiastic, then you need to pull your head out of a cave. We’re here because we have ideas and causes and priorities that we are advocating for. Things like carbon pollution, gender and ethnic inequities, scale-dependent processes in community assembly, waiting for ecology to move beyond functional traits, the emergence of complexity in social systems, and whether or not there is any difference between the Costa Rican beers Imperial and Pilsen. There is a lot to talk about. If you don’t want to be on social media as an academic, then I’m guessing you don’t have any idea or cause or priority that you wish to advocate for. Academics are here to change things. We’re here to make new knowledge, but if we’re not doing anything to facilitate the conversion of knowledge into action, then we’ve not done our job.


39 thoughts on “Serious academics take the media seriously

  1. I hope you sent this to The Guardian. ________________________________________

  2. I agree with you in principle, but I personally refuse to use social media because:

    The websites, especailly twitter and facebook, suck. They are loaded with cookies, ads, trackers, and third party scripts. I block all of those but browser fingerprinting is getting ugly, and hard to block. Third party scripts served on legitimate (rather than shady) websites are a major source of malware nowadays.
    Additional branches on the failure tree. I use multifator authentication, password managers, and high entropy passwords like “manse enmity$read askew dx;kappa fa,” but every login you own is still a target for the Chinese and Russians and obnoxious neighbor kids.

    Which is not to say you or anyone else can’t use social media and still be serious! Just believe me when I say my anti-social (pun intended) decisions were cold blooded and pragmatic.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, I’m a PhD student and I think that the attitude of the original article writer is exactly what’s wrong with academia. The systemic snobbishness gets so tiresome to be around!

  4. I love this post! Academics are people passionate about their subject sharing on social media creates a dialogue about a subject. social media is a tool that if used wisely can create a whole generation of people better informed and engaged in a whole range of subjects, even if they’re not university students. I especially like what you said about academics not taking themselves too seriously while still taking their work seriously. There’s a big ego attached to academia and that is an awful shame.

  5. Any informed person is well aware that there are severe problems plaguing the world. I avoid social media because involvement there is lost amongst tsunamis of nonsense. I am not an academic but I can well understand somebody with special knowledge that has small impact on important social issues not getting involved in total trivia. But there are doubtless areas wherein someone socially concerned with special knowledge can have an impact and perhaps make an important contribution. But that involves much more than special understandings. It is a matter of the individual personality of the academic and whether there is felt a responsibility to present a special case. Commercial media overflows with directed propaganda from economic and political sources to affect special interests and somebody without the temperament to tangle with the problems that involves is best to stay out of it.

  6. …. ecology to move beyond functional traits, the emergence of complexity in social systems, and whether or not there is any difference between the Costa Rican beers Imperial and Pilsen – Love this!! Can I use it in a novel? especially the beer bit?

    On a ‘serious’ note, I read widely (about 7-10 books a week) and enjoy broadening my perspective (discourse creates and shapes perception, you know – I’m sure someone said that already; maybe a ‘serious’ academic [no, that’s right, it was a pedant]) so I can put solid evidential details in with my characters when I write. I may not get it all right, but knowledge is a flexible thing and nothing stays the same (for long).
    Thank you for being one of the share-and-care group of professional thinkers and do-ers.

  7. On another ‘serious’ note, I think someone should find who that person was, and show them the original specs for ‘internet’ use. It goes something along the lines of: communications device/system for academic and scientific sharing of information.
    Hmmm, wonder how he missed that one?
    I find it relatively easy to by-pass the insipid and silly discussions – because I know how to look for the things I want. Being social is being human, being insipid, silly and inconsequential is also human – but failings! Let him look to himself when he makes such silly and insipid statements!
    Sorry, when I went away and thought about it (like any serious-minded silly individual) I got a bit annoyed with ‘that person’ – and the journalist who gave him the time of day!

  8. Pingback: My sentiments… |
  9. It needs to be shared. A lot of people are receiving information from various sources that can’t be verified and causes these memes that create dummies. We need real facts, data, sources that you worked hard to put together to teach people information that the media and others will distort to their advantage. I love books and journal articles because they can either confirm my opinions or correct them.

  10. I felt extremely encouraged by this response. If we aren’t enthusiastic and passionate about our work, how do we expect to inform and inspire others?

  11. Absolutely right, I totally relate and agree to your viewpoint. This self-glorification by some and self-asserting ones superiority is becoming a prevalent tradition. I like the way you snubbed it — deserving`ly.

  12. Bravo! My research focus is engaging to “serious academics” and to the general public. My data is relevant – and validating – to a wide population. It never occurred to me to withhold my findings. Of course, I am following proper protocol (I’m within range of the dissertation defense so maybe I’m not “serious” enough yet), but I never had any intention to limit access to my findings and the knowledge I am forming that has a true capacity to help. And you bet I share all over social media my reflections and personal experiences of the brutality of my research process because that’s normalizing to other PhD students. I know because I looked for the same at various points.

    Thank you for your post!

  13. As an academic myself, I agree with notion that we can use social media to connect with other fellow scientists but also to popularize science – there is nothing wrong with that. I rather say it’s the question of the format how information is served – it should be understandable for appropriate audience.

  14. My fav quote ‘the things that we work on, while all-encompassing to ourselves, are obscure inanities to most of the public’. Teaching others what we have learned in life its being done for ages. That’s how we know what we know today, from people who wanted to pass that knowledge through books. Da Vinci didn’t made some of the ideas he had in his diary, but still he passed on to us, someone continued the work. We got our lives easier. We can search through the internet a learn new stuff everyday to make our lives easier, evolving to making it even better. Thinking only about profit, or getting a job with the knowledge is being selfish. I am a person who likes to learn just for the sake of learning, if you are afraid of me taking your future job, get to work!

    Getting back to your post: you are a serious academic if you take serious what you have learned, and make something out of it.

    I’m following you… Surprise me with some more of these posts.

  15. You made some truly excellent points. In my experience, the people who are most vocal against social media legitimately avoid engaging in the topic of our society with anything other than condescension. I have concluded that their perception of social media has disassociated from it’s existence as a medium of society .

  16. in some context, your presence in social media is a determinant of asking you to write op-ed or article in an academic journal or getting accepted in a conference or getting a nomination to participate in sessions with decision makers ….
    so some academics show up in Social media market without genuine contribution in order to be chosen/ selected others who run academic/policy organziations .

  17. And yet the “serious academic” had no problem giving comment to a national daily broadsheet with a fairly hefty number of online readers and very active social media content strategy too – I’m not sure if this article appeared in print or online-only.

    Surely such matters should only be discussed in serious academic journals with other serious academics. :-)

    Perhaps one of the red-herrings here is actually The Guardian’s editorial policy and chicanery. If they had published an article by serious academics endorsing and encouraging the publication of research online, no one would have batted an eyelid. Mainly because it’s hardly a new position. But, by publishing an oppositional – frankly, reactionary – point of view, The Guardian gets its hits. Just look at us all go…

    It’s easy to understand how the pressure on some academic institutions to monetize and “participate in the knowledge economy” may make many universities nervous for giving it away for free via social media. So it IS important to not be drawn into simplistic polarities.

    Rightly or wrongly, social media has led to a shift, possibly accelerated by learned behaviours dictated by the instrumentalised design of social media itself , that is actively changing the way people, especially ‘native digital’ generations, consume information. And hopefully some in this discussion are actually doing some serious research about that. But, while it can be great for the delivery of bite-size research findings, one of the questions is whether many actually click on a link; read the whole book as it were.

    Many who teach at an undergraduate level have commented that many students currently suffer from what a colleague called “decontextualising dyspepsia”, a kind of willing gullibility to accept too many things online at face value accompanied by a disinterest in hitting the library or academic journals to place research findings within a broader context and debates, as has always been what academia is about.

    Of course, this is not a reason to either advocate either putting research online or avoiding doing so. But I guess that my reading of this whole strand of discussion is that it poses serious questions about what academics hope to achieve – whether for or against publishing research on social media- matches up with what we are already learning about how people use social media.

    Like me, for example, right now, spouting off ad lib when once I lived in a world where I was expected to prepare for the seminar beforehand.

    But, in a world where national legislation vs privately-held servers in other countries is often used as the reason for being unable to prevent all kinds of other questionable and vile material being published on social media, I find it bizarre that anyone could actively advocate discouraging others from publishing academic research – unless it were stolen. Sure, they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So how then could you decry those offering a lot of it?

  18. I loved this and completely agree. In my opinion academics have a responsibility to share knowledge and it would be remiss of an academic to overlook social media as a platform to share knowledge. Especially in a world where news reaches people faster on Facebook and Twitter than on the actual news.

  19. So many comments, yet nobody chastising me about using the singular they. Is this some kind of paradise we are in?

  20. I completely agree. Not only do I love reading other people’s research and ideas, but I love sharing my own. What’s the point if we’re not sharing? And social media is the easiest way to share these ideas with the most people. If academics start thinking they are too good for sharing their work on social media, then they’ve lost the point of education entirely.

  21. I believe that we should share academics to the public as it creates a discussion among those who are interested in the topic. Sharing it to the employees only does not suffice the society as a whole. We need to know of the new discoveries and theories for us to improve as a whole. Instead of being selfish, companies should expect academic writers share their findings to all. Much love.

  22. Not being an academic, you’ll have to excuse my ignorance on the matter, but aren’t there conferences where papers can be presented? Journals where findings can be published? Unless you’ve got something concrete to present to the masses, why bother us? My sister subscribes to New Scientist; it’s just right for an interested civilian. As for the rest of us, if you’ve got thrilling news about irons that don’t need human beings to guide them, let us know.
    Regarding the ‘singular they’, don’t be too surprised, Terry that there’s no comment, PC has us in its grip. We’re hardly noticing it at all these days.

  23. I agree. Completely. And if I could FIND the Like button on the page, would do so. In lieu of that, I will say…

    Academics play their learned cards close to the chest for a multitude of reasons, none of which are very altruistic in nature.

    I, personally, am thankful that I have access to academic work via the internet. Without it, I would be forced to believe everything that someone behind a desk, on Fox News, or in an exam room told me.

    Thanks for posting this.

  24. Maybe the supposed serious academic simply lives a generation behind us all and as such doesnt appreciate the potential and far reaching capability of the social media as a tool for sharing academic info

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