The Internet offers ways for researchers to steer public perceptions, for bad and good.
“My reputation grows with every failure,” said Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. And that was before the Internet. Shaw would no doubt be amazed by how quickly electronic bulletin boards such as Facebook and Twitter can now spread the word of deeds both good and bad.
Take the example of Anil Potti, a cancer specialist who resigned his post at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, last year after it was revealed that he had lied on his CV about being a Rhodes Scholar, and whose research, which had been the basis for clinical cancer trials, was called into question. The Internet should be an unforgiving place for Potti; yet instead of damning news reports, a search on his name throws up a series of plaudits. Numerous websites have been set up to salute his conclusion that smoking causes lung cancer, and to broadcast the information that he enjoys spending time with his family and finished top of his class in high school. Prospective employers who check his background online can still find details of his resignation — but will have to look a little bit more carefully.
Job done, then, for Online Reputation Manager, the company listed as an administrative contact in the registration details for two of the more positive sites. Potti is surely grateful for their efforts.
He is not alone in benefiting from a little electronic-profile polishing. A survey for Nature this week suggests that up to 10% of scientists have considered using external services to manage their online reputations (see page 138). Others have edited their own biographies on the online resource Wikipedia — a practice that is frowned upon — or inserted references to their own work.
Online reputation is important to most researchers, and about 10% of respondents to our survey complained that they or their work have been misrepresented on the Internet. The web has a long memory, and rumours, lies and bad information can spiral out of control to be remembered by posterity.
Through responsible use of blogs and social media, researchers have the power to chip away at misperceptions. This isn't about flame wars or trolling comment boards — a lifetime could be spent telling people on the Internet that they're wrong — but rather involves getting the right facts out there, and citing and linking to the best, most trustworthy sources of information.
Such diligence can also benefit scientists as members of a professional community. Researchers who make sure that personal and institutional websites, blogs and social-media pages are accurate and honest will enhance the usefulness of web searches by pushing the most relevant and trusted information to the top. This can make it easier for scientists to find one another for collaboration and reviewing papers, and to locate and fill jobs.
Enhancing visibility and promoting a digital image may strike some as unsavoury, but it is not. Researchers are right to promote themselves and their work in a reasonable capacity. The Internet has provided a tremendous tool to do this effectively. And a little more besides.
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Online image. Nature 473, 124 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/473124a