The Economics of Academic Self-promotion

Marketing is you telling others about yourself. Public relations is having someone else tell others about you.

Unless you are independently wealthy you engage in some amount of self-promotion. You drafted a resume and applied for a job, rather than sat at home and waited for someone to knock on your door (though to a first approximation, that is how I met my wife). Even if someone knocked on your door, you at least filled out some paperwork. Even Leonardo da Vinci had to write a resume.

Some people are better at that than others. Some people do it for a living, and have created jobs where the only thing they are selling is themselves, not the thing they are promising to do. Salesmen say “Always be closing“, academics might say the same “Always be citable”.

wileecoyotebusinesscardImagine the life of a politician, (worst case- a Presidential candidate) giving largely the same speech every day. Recalling how she pulled herself up from her bootstraps, or if not her, her grandparents, and is thus both humble and grateful, (reminding you how humble and grateful she is) and genetically-deserving, since it was her ancestors who worked so hard, living in a tarpaper shack, working from the age of 8, to put food on the table for 18 brothers and sisters. (Cue 4 Yorkshiremen Sketch), and appreciative they had it so good.

For years a politician is running for office, selling themselves and the promise of how they will act, and once elected is running for re-election. There is hardly any time to actually act, and  the action is all too-often driven not by what is right but by what maximizes re-election chances. This is one great advantage of term-limits, it takes away the pressure for re-election – in game theory terms, it changes the repeated prisoner’s dilemma game from indefinite duration to one with a known end, so the strategy in a repeated game prisoner’s dilemma changes from cooperate to defect, where cooperation is cooperation with voters who elected you. Yet, there is still the pressure of getting hired in the revolving door somewhere.

Academics repeat themselves (teaching the same course year after year for starters), and more so if they are famous, giving interview after interview on the same topic. But most academics aren’t famous. Instead in academia we spend what seems to be inordinate amounts of time writing grant proposals, and a lot making presentations and networking, but at least our students get to do work, and hopefully documents (theses, papers) come out the other end.

I have a blog (you are here), on which I announce things (papers published, reports delivered, interviews granted, theses defended, conferences upcoming, and so on) to a slightly wider audience than would otherwise know about them.

I also post articles on my blog. It is after all my blog. If you are still reading, you are interested in them. Maybe you read for the articles, maybe for the announcements,  (though statistics tell me its usually the articles). In that case the announcements function like advertising.

I did not pull out a gun and make you read. I did not buy ads elsewhere to expose you unwillingly. I did not inundate you with announcements. I strive very hard not to say the same thing twice (in contrast with most marketing advice and every politician’s behavior), though I will announce both the working paper and the accepted publication. If I am successful, you will share my post on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, and others will read it. That is public relations.

I archive my articles in a library, so someone else can find them. I maintain a website with pointers to my articles. Publishers cannot be assumed to be responsible enough to make them available. (I can count at least three journals that have ceased publication after I submitted articles in the last couple of decades, and one which took an Open Access paper and made it closed access until I complained more than once to the editor.)

But it is unseemly, somehow, for academics to appear to be engaged in marketing or public relations. Yet we all know it works. The most widely cited academics are seldom the deepest. The general cry is “Why are that bastard’s papers cited?” They got successful because someone saw their work. And people (including academics) are lazy [er, cost-minimizing], and cite what is cited, so they can copy the already formatted references. And they cite what they know, which depends on what they read and what they see presented at conferences and seminars.

And once something is cited twice, it is more likely (probably about twice as likely) to be cited a third time than something which is cited once is to be cited twice. There is a network effect here.

This is where self-citation helps juice numbers. The more times I cite myself, the more likely my paper will show up near the top of Google Scholar. Even better, form a mutual benefit scheme (I cite your papers if you cite mine), which is often (I suppose) never uttered, just observed. Some journals are well-known for this.

I suspect there is cross-over between papers mentioned in popular media and academic citation, so if you get an article on a website (newsy) that mentions and links your article, it will filter into academic citation downstream.

This is not to say self-citation is inherently bad, it is quite logical. If I work in an area, I am likely to have worked in an area before, so my previous papers are more likely to be relevant than some random person’s. More to the point, if I am using a similar methodology on new data, I can just cite that previous paper with a comment which basically says “details there”, and make this paper shorter and less repetitive.

Citations are currency exchangeable for promotion and tenure. We mine citations like bitcoin by writing them into papers and distribute them to our friend and colleagues (and occasionally our frenemies, but only when we say they are wrong – nothing stokes citations like controversy), who all we hope will repay the favor potlatch style. The only thing keeping citations from exploding are the good sense of authors, and peer reviewers, and editors, who want to keep the numbers down, page count shorter, and deny additional wealth in terms of citations to their rivals by telling authors to be “less obsequious.”

In the end, what matters in knowledge accumulation and science is not citations and publicity but truth. In the end, widely cited, but wrong, papers are still wrong. In the meantime, the authors of those papers had a nicer life because they earned more academic currency. While one hopes right papers are more widely cited than wrong ones, paradoxically it is far easier to write a wrong paper, and thus spend more time on promoting it, than it is to write a right one.