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Too much hype

Scientists have to promote their work. But they should fight the pull to oversell it, says Monika Maleszewska.

If you had asked me a few years ago what makes a scientist, I would have said curiosity. Now, after almost three years pursuing my PhD, I would probably say political skills. Genuine curiosity does indeed make a good scientist, but the ability to promote one's work makes a successful one.

Credit: JOAO BRANDAO/IMAGEZOO/CORBIS

No matter how driven they are, researchers need more than expertise and bright ideas: they need money. Young scientists seeking funding must be ready to enter a world for which their degrees have not prepared them — a world of administrative and funding-agency politics, in which they must promote their ideas to gain attention and receive grants. But they also must take care to avoid crossing the line between promotion and hype.

In the competitive and expensive world of modern science, researchers cannot afford to toil away on their own. Lone-wolf scientists might have their own vision of innovative, cutting-edge research that will reap rewards. But they will probably struggle to procure enough funding to do that work. A hybrid approach might be to secure money through grant applications for 'fashionable' work (with a pinch of hype where necessary), and to hope that the resulting funding will, somewhere along the way, let the visionary scientist pursue his or her dream project — the one that really has an impact.

As a young scientist learning to navigate these issues, I often hear the following advice: communicate more effectively. If your project is in basic science or is difficult to understand, people say, make it simpler. Nicer. Easier to digest. Yet scientists thrive on precision. So sometimes, when pressed to make our projects sound simpler and more attractive, we choose hype as an easy way out.

Fashionable keywords, which change almost seasonally, help our projects to sound more relevant to the current trends. Society expects science to have applications, so we readily slip in some socially relevant perspective. A bit of exaggeration about expected results or future uses does not bother our consciences, as long as we perceive it as unbridled enthusiasm.

A skilful presentation and a positive attitude can make a huge difference in how a scientist's work is perceived. Give two PhD students the same set of data to present, and one may put the audience to sleep with dry delivery, whereas the other might spark a vigorous discussion, perhaps winning a collaborator.

Yet despite being under constant pressure as we climb the ranks of academia, scientists must learn to navigate the blurred line between hype and savvy promotion. Young researchers who frequently exaggerate the implications of their findings or make hasty conclusions risk harming their reputations and losing the trust of their colleagues.

I often wish that scientists had the luxury of being able to do basic research just because it is interesting. But reviewers sometimes gravitate towards the projects that provide direct solutions to burning problems, rather than to basic projects with no clear applications. We must give basic projects a chance, especially because breakthroughs are hard to anticipate. That basic science might be closer to a meaningful application than anyone expects.

In the competitive world of scientific funding, researchers often have no choice but to hone their political skills and manage public relations for their research. Ideally, they will be able to do this without taking too much time away from the science. What's clear is that budding researchers must learn how to promote their work, and perhaps even become trendsetters — without resorting to hype.

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Maleszewska, M. Too much hype. Nature 500, 113 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7460-113a

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