Two interesting posts appeared on Daily Nous this week. First, there was the depressing-but-not-surprising news that for most humanities articles simply aren’t read or cited (No One is Listening). Second, there was a legitimate question on the permissibility of self-promotion in philosophy (Norms of Self-Promotion).They’re both worth reading on their own. But I want to focus now on the relationship between academic self-promotion and living in the age of the unread (articles). A big part of the reason that self-promotion has become more of the norm is to try to get one’s scholarship read.
The Age of the Unread is marked by the vast publication of academic articles that largely go unread. As The Straights Times reports, 82% of humanities papers are never cited, and the average paper is read by 10 people. (And that average includes the sciences and those articles that get cited dozens or hundreds of times!) To be fair, the Age of the Unread is not a new phenomenon in academia. But, with the modern proliferation of journals and increasing specialization and rise in interdisciplinarity, it has reached new heights.
It’s no wonder, then, that more and more academics have taken to self-promotion. It is an obvious response to try to gain a larger readership for one’s work. Considerations of the moral permissibility of academic self-promotion must be done in light of this context.
Academic self-promotion can take many forms. As Justin Weinberg notes, one form is by having and updating one’s own Wikipedia page, though this is far from common and often regarded as egregious self-promotion. The majority of self-promotion happens on social-media, and that can be split into two kinds: academic social media and social social media.
The academic social media consist of sites like academia.edu or researchgate.net. Posting a notice of a publication here does constitute a form of self-promotion, since you are making a larger audience aware of your work than otherwise would be. On the other hand is self promotion on truly social social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Blog posts also fall in this category. Though we may come to the find self-promotion to be permissible in these differing contexts, they do have to be considered separately. In both cases, however, I think that posting one’s publications or presentations does function as a form of bragging (which Mark Alfano and I have discussed in more detail previously – and yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this article in a post on self-promotion).
Self-promotion via academic social media seems less objectionable, at least to me, especially when occurring in the Age of the Unread. First, the audience of this bragging is other academics. Second, the (at least implied) primary motivation is to share one’s research to the benefit of other academics. Third, sites like academia.edu and researchgate.net are starting to serve as like online CVs, and there doesn’t seem anything objectionable about having a public CV as a record of one’s research accomplishments.
Self-promotion via truly social networks is perhaps a different matter. These are looked at great deal more than the academic social networks and by those in and out of the academy alike. Second, the nature of these sites is such that posts about publications and the like do not function in a manner akin to an online CV. The posts are announcements that become part of a user’s aggregated news feed. I generally think there is not much wrong with self-promotion on these site as well, especially in light how facebook and twitter are used in general. People post there about all sorts of accomplishments, promotions, new babies, getting married, running marathons. So, academic promotion on social media fits seamlessly into the larger social backdrop of using facebook and twitter for a modest amount of bragging. Some level of pride (and the bragging that goes with it) is morally acceptable, I think, and too much humility becomes a vice.
When we engage in self-promotion , pride is a factor. We are proud of our work and think there is something, right, true, or useful in it. We don’t want it to end up in the ever-growing heap of articles that go unread and uncited. Not all self-promotion is motivated (solely) by desire for self-advancement. That pride in our work isn’t a bad thing, since (at least for most of us) is born of desire that prompts us to do research in the first place, namely to have an impact. Furthermore, I see little wrong with (some) motivation for self-advancement. Most of us did not get into philosophy or professional academics generally with the intention of not getting a tenure track job or being denied tenure, for example. We want to succeed, and the continuation of our research depends upon advancing in our careers. So, if a bit of self-promotion can help us do that, I for one see no problem. There does come a point, however, in one’s career, where self-promotion for self-advancement becomes more questionable.
As a final point, however, the rise in self-promotion on social media has the potential to fail to address the problems of the Age of the Unread. As a growing number of academics engage in online self-promotion, the noise of that self-promotion increases to the point where again no one is listening. For example, I’ve already turned off email updates from academia.edu. There were simply too many scholars I respect producing good work for me to have the time to notice the announcements anymore.