Skip to content
The Present

The credibility of science is damaged when universities brag about themselves

The “attention economy” corrupts science.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, Olena / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • About 25 years ago, it was predicted that attention would come to dominate the marketplace. The prediction was correct.
  • Science is not immune to the “attention economy.” In fact, it plays an active role in it.
  • However, the things that are seen as being of value to individual scientists or institutions, like media attention, are undermining public trust and devaluing science as a collective resource.

Twenty-five years ago, it was projected that, in an ever-more interconnected world, money would no longer be the prime currency, attention would be. This would reshape social values, and as we became more engrossed in efforts to gain attention, we would shortchange those around us; in other words, the drive for self would come at the expense of concern for others. The projection has played out as prophetic, and the attention economy is here, with its associated societal shifts.

Science in the attention economy

Science and scientists are part of society. Neither sit on a lofty perch that makes them impervious to societal shifts. More than 50 years ago, it was projected that, as science grew larger, its structure would shift from community-driven to individual-driven. Along the way, there would be a rise in quantitative metrics to evaluate scientists. Initially, metrics were limited to attention amongst peers, via citation counts.

That has expanded. The attention a scientist’s work gains from the public now plays into its perceived value. Scientists list media exposure counts on résumés, and many PhD theses now include the number of times a candidate’s work has appeared in the popular science press. Science has succumbed to the attention economy.

Scientists have always wanted to have their work noticed. That’s not new. However, when attention becomes currency, the ecosystem changes. And that changing ecosystem encompasses universities, academic publishing, and the way science is communicated to the public.

Universities have adopted business models that follow economic market forces. As the market has become one of attention, universities have dived headfirst into attention games. Faculty now receive messages to “brag about yourselves.” The bragging increasingly focuses on how much attention faculty work draws from the media. (The rise of altmetrics is telling.) Universities encourage science faculty to become self-promoting entrepreneurs in the attention market, and the value of a scientific paper is connected to how much attention it garners. That attention, in turn, feeds into a university’s academic profit — namely, in terms of rankings and external funding.

Academic publishing is now dominated by for-profit companies. Revenue from subscriptions and from authors, who pay to be published, are no longer the only profit sources. More attention for papers in a publisher’s portfolio of journals is currency. Publishers provide authors with game plans for getting their papers attention on social media, in the popular science press, and on podcasts. These attention generating schemes are packaged by publishers using phrases like “get your science the attention it deserves.” (On Google, that search term garners nearly 500 million hits.) Of course, scientists gain career benefits by participating in these schemes.

How the attention economy corrupts science

This brings us to science communication in the attention economy. Historically, scientists would communicate results to their peers in the scientific community. Once properly assessed, verified, or refuted, influential results would gain traction — a process that takes time. Those that were breakthroughs were proclaimed as such to the public (and the contributions of others were acknowledged).

But the attention economy has changed the ecosystem. Results are now presented to the public as influential well before community assessment can take place. What often turns out to be small findings and/or non-reproducible results are hyped as significant enough to share with the public. The insatiable drive for attention leads to a framing of results in a way that downplays uncertainty, as well as viable alternative hypotheses. It also devalues studies that reproduce (or fail to reproduce) previous results.

The above feeds into several crises in science: the reproducibility crisis, hyped results that fall short, hyper-competition among scientists, and an increased rate of retractions. It also leads to an uncoordinated deluge of scientific results — all invariably proclaimed as breakthroughs — being blasted to the public under the pretense of public education. The people blasting the results do so with the thought that they deserve the attention. “Deserve” is a step away from “entitled to,” and people who feel they are entitled tend to have little concern for others. A large portion of the public (the “others”) will grow weary. Deteriorating trust in science can follow.

And herein is the paradox of science in the attention economy: The things that are seen as being of value to individual scientists or institutions (for example, “getting the attention you deserve”) are undermining public trust and devaluing science as a collective resource (that is, as a common good). This can push science toward a tragedy of the commons in which individual actions, done with no ill intent, can cause the collapse of a common resource or, at the least, a systemic restructuring of science as a societal resource.

Why should you care about this? Because you are part of the system — a consumer in the science attention market — and there is value in consumer awareness. As with other goods, advertising of science in the attention market will not go away. So, look for the telltale signs that the goal is less about conveying information and more about garnering attention. (One notable sign is when the focus is placed on the prestige of the institution rather than on the quality of the science itself.)  

If we remain cognizant that our attention is currency, and that it is not an unlimited resource, then we can use it wisely. That will benefit the scientific enterprise.


Up Next