The other problem with research social networks

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Hand showing social networking concept made with white chalk on a blackboard

It’s amazing how the site that was an incredible tool for you during your PhD can turn into a thorn in your side after. While I was still poring over chapters and spending hours with data in the office, academic social networks like Academia.edu and Researchgate were my best friends. There I could download the latest research, scope out those who might scoop me and grab pre-print copies of papers that would be a pain to get otherwise. Nowadays, I am less of a fan.

There are few things more discouraging for someone between PhD and first post-doc than the incessant beep of emails telling me how many papers everyone else is publishing. Sure, I am happy for them, but is there any need to find out that seemingly every other researcher in my field is publishing perfect papers, while I dig my way through the one that needs written but seems to be trapped under a very heavy writer’s block?

Going by my daily emails, it would seem that some scholars are writing as many papers each week as there are people reading my papers. How can that be? Are there some fields where you can spit out a paper every week or so and others, like my own field, where the data analysis alone can keep you awake for a month?

Okay, okay, it isn’t quite like that, but to new researchers it can certainly feel like it. The pressure to publish doesn’t diminish after the PhD. In fact it gets worse. Suddenly, you need to balance earning money with wrangling data, and networking with literature reviews.

The problem with research social networks is therefore much the same as social networks in general: people only tend to tell the world about the good bits. In his book, “Crash the Chatterbox”, Steven Furtick talks about how, when we regularly use social media, we can end up comparing our real-life with someone else’s highlight reel. Who instagrams all the rejection notices they get from journals? Who posts the papers the reviewers hated on researchgate? Which site contains the unedited scrawl of academics trying their hardest to fit complex arguments into eight thousand words, without simplifying anything?

If you take your daily or weekly updates at face value, everyone in your field is doing better than you. Start thinking that way and your old friend, imposter syndrome, will arrive for a piggy back. The truth is that no one is writing a high quality paper every week but if you follow enough other researchers, the odds are good that someone will have published something while you were on holiday or changing nappies.

Big deal! All those new papers are going to do is give you more fodder for your next masterpiece. Celebrate the fact that knowledge is expanding and you have one less problem to solve. Once we understand that no one writes papers effortlessly we can gain a much healthier sense of progress and our own abilities.

No one finds academic writing easier than tying their shoes. And hardly any papers survive the journal process without any suggested edits. If they do, we might want to start having concerns about the quality of the work done by the journal. The whole point of peer reviewing is to make sure that the paper that gets published is as rigourous and strong as possible. 99.9 times out of 100, that means more work.

There is another side to this story, however. If you are on twitter, you might have seen the funny and brutally stories that were tagged with #overlyhonestmethods. While none of us might want to publicly agree with the kinds of decisions people admitted making, the truth is that we are often too quick to try to present perfection. Research sometimes sucks and there is no point in pretending it is always easy. Hence why phdcomics and the likes have been so enduringly popular.

Perhaps there should be a space on research social media sites for the projects that didn’t get funded and for the papers that got flat out rejected. I am sure scholars of all levels of experience had them and one of the most powerful moments of my PhD was being allowed to see the comments that an experienced academic got on a paper he submitted to a top journal. Once you know that your experience is pretty normal, it is much easier to swallow.

The same goes for publishing. If you have been through the academic publishing process, you will know that it isn’t all about writing perfect paper after perfect paper. There is hard work to be done at every step in the process and the elation of seeing your paper in print is simply the end of a very long and arduous chain of events.

So the next time you get those cheery emails telling you how many of your colleagues have published, take a moment to drop them an email to congratulate them and, if it is useful, have a look over their work. Soon enough, it will be your work appearing on someone else’s email. Until then, let’s remember that the world is nowhere near as simple as it seems on social media. It’s only the highlight reel after all.

Author Bio: Jonathan Downie is currently an independent researcher in interpreting. He recently finished a PhD at Heriot-Watt University. Jonathan tweets as @jonathanddownie.  He has also just published Being a successful interpreter ( Routledge 2016)

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