To TED or not to TED…that is the question (for researchers)

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

Sharon Begley on Twitter (@sxbegle) pointed out an interesting article today about the effect of giving a TED talk for academic researchers.  The authors use a variety of library science techniques to characterize the TED-giving population.  Among other things, they found that presentations by academic researchers were generally more cited and liked on YouTube, but also that the number of citations of an academic researcher’s work did not increase after giving a TED talk.  This might suggest TED talks help researchers raise their public profile, but not necessarily their academic reputation.  There are caveats here, one of the main ones being that the scientists giving TED talks generally were measured as relatively “impactful” in terms of their publication history.  So, maybe these guys (and they’re mostly guys) were already cited as much as they would ever be.

On the other hand, getting a Nobel Prize does increase the number of times scientists are cited, so it is possible to increase your citations in some ways.  Just, you know, win a Nobel Prize.

This topic could go in a lot of directions–the role of scientists in popularizing science, the general TED phenomenon, public hunger for science versus science literacy, and maybe at a later point I can come back to that.  But in reading this study the first question I found myself asking was:  Does giving a TED talk get you more grants?  If we think about the academic research ecology, grants are the sun that feed the fields of academic research.  No grants, no research.  Also, no grants, no position.  And so I turned to the senior author on the study, Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University Bloomington.  I asked whether she thought grant funding might increase with a TED talk.  Her response via email:

“My hypothesis, motivated from our data, is that you would not see a significant difference. The scholars invited to present at TED were already in the scientific elite, cited significantly more than average for their fields. I would hazard a guess that they are also more likely to receive grant funding, but not because of TED. They are chosen for TED precisely because they are already elite. It’s a perfect example of the Matthew Effect at work–to those who have, more shall be given.”

And that led me to think of another question:  could giving a TED talk decrease your odds of getting a grant?  While we would like to think of the grant-awarding, peer review system of the NIH, for example, as fair and impartial, I have yet to meet a scientist who believes this.  This may not be a terrible thing–to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “It has been said that ‘NIH peer review’ is the worst form of  ‘grant awarding’ except all the others that have been tried.”  However, it does allow bias to creep in.  Studies have looked at the presence of biases in grant awarding under such theories as accumulative advantage.  Reviewers are human.  Humans have feelings and opinions.  If the human reviewing the grant of a TED speaker has strong negative opinions on the value of public engagement, or perceives TED presentations as grandstanding, would that lead unconsciously to a lower score?

On a practical level, the N is far too small and the timeframe too short to see the effect, if there is one.  Check back in 20 years and we’ll see.  But let me take this one step further and now ask, even if giving a TED talk doesn’t help in citations or grants, can it be a net positive for a researcher’s funding because it increases the probability of being able to use crowdsourcing approaches?

A number of researchers have sought research funding via Kickstarter and other sites.  However, I believe potential funders have a limited amount of disposable, impulse-driven income (I think of this as the iTunes/Latte pool), so this isn’t an endless new resource.  Right now the opportunity for crowdfunding is still pretty open but soon we could see many more scientists trying this route, especially as government sources of funding dry up.  In that case it will be a competitive market, and fame, such as might come from a nice TED talk, could be one of the factors leading to people choosing one project to fund over another.  Which could lead to what Cassidy Sugimoto refers to above as the Matthew effect.  The rich get richer.

And there are other possible negatives to crowdfunding, such as when researchers become driven to self-promotion to get crowdfunding support. To quote again from Cassidy’s email:

“…I think there are more disturbing issues in terms of branding of scholars. It is no longer sufficient to just do high quality research and publish it in reputable venues. Scholars must engage in personal branding–through social media and other means–to raise their value. Citations are not enough–now scholars also need to demonstrate their value in terms of tweets, media mentions, and the like…However, the negative implication is incentivizing branding over scholarship.”

But that’s a topic to expand upon some other day.  In any case, the possible negatives for giving a TED talk seem far outweighed by the real and possible benefits, and I’m in favor of anything that makes scientists talk to the public.

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