Career, Science

The benefits of being a big name. Or: In science your name is your brand


Being a big name in science brings benefits, writes Chris Woolston in Nature, but a “study that links scientists’ reputations with their citations triggers online talk.”

And knowing ‘online talk’ it’s save to assume most of it was negative.

So let’s see what it is all about. Woolston summarizes the situation nicely:

“Scientists develop reputations that often work to their advantage.” *

I am happy to hear this: If you have a reputation for doing good work it bloody well should make your life easier.

And indeed this is what a study in PNAS found:

“A study suggests that the presence of a well-known scientist on a list of authors can drive citations of the paper, regardless of the merits of the research — especially soon after its publication (A. M. Petersen et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 15316–15321; 2014).” *

I haven’t read the PNAS paper and don’t know if you can get a grocery list into Nature just by putting Eric Lander’s name on it — but in general I am not surprised by this finding.

I was more surprised by the comments that followed online. Especially something like this:

“Imagine that sports player would score 66% more points only because of a reputation. Everybody would ridicule the judges and call the sport discipline a beauty contest” (commented one John Smith)

John, honestly, you chose a terrible comparison. Science is not a sport where you score points. It is about having creative ideas, coming up with novel concepts, finding new things, maybe even helping people in need by developing a new drug. None of this can be summarized by points being scored, as is frequently and consistently being pointed out by critics of impact factor rankings.

I am human: nothing human is alien to me

If I had the choice between citing one of two papers, the first one written by someone I respect and who has built up a strong reputation for good work and the second one written by someone I have never heard of, but who basically says the same thing – then I (and most other humans) will cite the Big Name.

The reason is simple: Good science is so hard to judge. And nobody can just look up a score for it. So, we trust people more who have performed well in the past. There is nothing wrong with this. The Big Names have earned our trust, we assume.

Obviously, if they misbehave, they can lose this trust. For example I would be surprised if Joe Nevin’s name carried as much weight after the Duke scandal as it did before.

And I know researchers in my field who are successful by many standards (group size, grant income, committee memberships, etc) but who have a reputation as shallow and unimaginative scientists. They will really have to produce a string of high-quality papers to change that perception. And until then, nobody will be excited about their new paper and cite it just because they are on it.

Vorsprung durch Technik

Trust in the Big Names is just like trust in a Big Brand. For example when you are buying a car. Of course I drive a BMW, because they are the best. And the commercials are slick. Vroom. Vroom. Sometimes I contemplate getting an Audi. Also German, but with Vorsprung durch Technik! That must be even better.

You see, I am no car-mechanic and actually not even that interested in cars. So if I have to choose I take the one that has a good reputation or -being only too human- the one that is well advertised.

Both BMW and Audi produce good cars, and because they have produced good cars for a while they have a good reputation, and they make sure I know them and their reputation by advertizing it.

The same goes for science. I am an expert in less fields than I would like to. And if I have to choose which research to trust and which papers to read I choose the ones by researchers with a good reputation and who are well-known.

And the PNAS paper shows that most scientists are just like me.

So why do people pretend to be surprised by the influence name recognition has in science?

Because there is this silly notion that science is special. It is pure. Above mere human.

Rubbish, I say. Science is done by humans for humans.

Build your own brand

So if you want to take anything important out of this discussion, let it be: build your own brand!

Do good work (yes, that’s a given).

But also write good papers, write them clearly, put in polished figures, make your message stick.

And then give good talks, be funny, be engaging – make sure people remember you and your work.

This is exactly why responsible supervisor make sure their students and postdocs get training in paper-writing and presentation techniques and go to conferences to gain some exposure and recognition.

And you can do more: maybe start writing a blog to popularize your research area. Or join a society like ISCB and become active in their student council for example.

And once you are a PI, make sure you have a pretty and pretty regularly updated webpage. Get a URL that says www.MyLastNamelab.org instead of http://www.university.ac.uk/department/people/subgroup/html/new/webpages/whatever/index.html.

All of that makes you and your work more memorable. In the long run it will help you build a reputation, which is good!

Don’t sabotage yourself

Building a brand does not turn shit into gold. You have to start with a good product (= your science). But making some noise will make sure that the gold you are producing is not overlooked.

Saying ‘I will not prostitute myself by advertising my work and my person’ is not being noble, it is self-sabotaging your career.

In summary: make sure people remember your name and what it stands for: Scientific rigor! Meticulous analysis! Unsurpassed creativity! Intellectual integrity! Profound insights!

That way you might be a Big Name yourself one day – and for all the right reasons.

Florian

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4 thoughts on “The benefits of being a big name. Or: In science your name is your brand

  1. Hi Florian,

    The pb is that if Fiat makes a rubbish car (which obviously I am not saying they do…), Audi is not interested in putting their name on the car without being really involved. Also, it’s much easier to find out that a car does not work as it should than to understand the implications of today science. I do think that reputation is important and it has always been like that in any field. But the problem in today publications is that we start to see work with many co-authors whose contribution is unclear. If simply having the name of an imaginative researcher on the paper boost its citations, then we have a problem. I like your take-home message though 😉

    Giovanni

    1. Hi Giovanni, thanks for your comment.

      You are right that the field we both are in (biomedicine, cancer research) is full of “work with many co-authors whose contribution is unclear”. I think this is a result of (a) how interdisciplinary and collaborative big projects are and (b) that medicine always had a much lower bar for co-authorships than maths or theoretical physics.

      But I think people know what to make of these crowded papers. Unless a name is at the very end (for Big Names) or within the first three (for aspiring Big Names) it just doesn’t count. Putting a Big Name in the middle shouldn’t and wouldn’t boost the citations of a paper, I’d guess.

      So if you want to build your brand, make sure to publish many first author papers.

      Florian

  2. Hi Florian,

    I guess it’s easy to also “imagine” cases with big names at the very end of an authorship list where contribution is also unclear. Also, putting a big name in the middle shouldn’t boost citations but it still might do the trick. Beyond the fairness of the citation process, it’s likely that to succeed in building your own brand you have to be good in quantum physics. Because thinking about it, somehow you should manage to transit from first author positions to last author ones without spending much time in the middle…

    Cheers,

    Giovanni

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