In academic environments, reputation has always had a great weight in the careers of researchers. In this article we review the concept, challenges and possibilities offered by the digital context for its construction.
What is reputation, and to what extent can we influence it?
The DRAE (Diccionario de la Real Academia de la lengua Española) defines reputation in its first meaning as “opinion or consideration in which someone or something is held” and in its second meaning as “prestige or esteem in which someone or something is held”. In other words, reputation has to do with the subjective perception that others have of us. Reputation is, therefore, the projection (image, external perception) of an individual’s identity.
Can we make that image as positive as possible? There are things we can do and things we cannot do. Our perception of people is influenced by facts, objectivity (in the case of the researcher, their merits), but also by opinions or emotions, i.e. subjectivity. The researcher must be confident that working on the objective plane will act positively on the opinions (sometimes prejudices) or emotions that may be generated in others.
What aspects can influence academic reputation? Some aspects of researcher identity seem to have greater influence in academia:
- Previous knowledge of the researcher (his/her production and/or personally)
- Recommendations and comments from other researchers (transmitted reputation)
As Woolston (2015) reports from his interview with Philip Bourne, Associate Director for Data Science at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) “if science were truly based on double-blinding, researchers […] would compete for citations, funding, invited papers and promotions solely on the basis of their accomplishments and skills; in the real world, scientists have names, and those names have burdens, both positive and negative; in an increasingly competitive scientific world, reputation is more important than ever”. Bourne advises those embarking on a scientific career to make the quality of their work their top priority, but also to take care of their relationships with other scientists as well as their presence in the scientific community and to do whatever is necessary to protect and promote their personal brand.
Reputation has a direct impact on academic careers. As Petersen et al. (2014) have observed, the positively perceived reputation of a researcher significantly increases the number of citations his or her work receives in the period immediately after publication. For Friesike et al. (2015) the academic world is, in effect, “a reputation economy in which the career of each researcher depends on recognition among his or her peers.”
Researchers’ digital reputation vs. institutional reputation
In this respect, reputation is a two-way street: the reputation of the institution influences the reputation of the researcher, and the reputation of the researcher influences the reputation of the institution (university, research center, library). Universities want to attract the best students and resources by attracting the best researchers: highly cited, award-winning researchers (the number of Nobel prizes is a criterion of reputation in international university rankings), leaders of teams and projects with prestigious funding, etc. In turn, researchers want to work in the most prestigious institutions, which can offer them the resources and environment favorable to their career development.
The reputation of the university where the PhD was obtained, as well as the institutions where the researcher has worked, have an important influence on researchers’ offline and digital reputation. Clauset et al. (2015) have observed, for example, the enormous influence of the prestige of the university where the PhD was obtained on the subsequent hiring demand: between 71-86% of newly hired full professors came from only 25% of the universities analyzed in the areas of Computer Science, History and Business. Researchers can find out about the prestige of a center through university rankings such as the Shanghai Ranking, the QS World University Ranking, or the Times Higher Education Ranking, when assessing a recruitment or collaborating with its researchers.
Strategies for building and maintaining a scientific reputation
Building a reputation takes years; destroying it takes very little, and once destroyed, it is difficult to recover. For this reason, Bourne and Barbour (2011) propose ten rules for building and maintaining a scientific reputation:
- Think before you act: accept the criticism you receive and take the time to respond professionally. Be aware that, in the digital age, your feedback can be picked up and retrieved at any time and damage your image.
- Do not ignore criticism: always respond to criticism (following rule 1), as failure to respond may be interpreted as an assumption of the criticism or as a lack of respect for the person criticizing you, which is not in your best interest in any case.
- Don’t ignore people: even students can contribute to your positive image, so try to respond to them personally, as well as to others who contact you. Do not ignore those who have made a significant contribution to your article either, include them among the signatures on your article.
- Check diligently everything you publish and take publication seriously: you should review papers thoroughly before submitting them for publication, whether you are the lead author or the last author on the list of signing authors, as you all share the same responsibility. Whatever your contribution to the paper, be frank with your co-authors about the quality and accuracy of the work. Never agree to sign a paper if you have not made a significant contribution to it.
- Always declare conflicts of interest: we can all have conflicts of interest, whether financial, professional or personal, so make an effort to assess how others may perceive our interest in being reviewers, evaluators, etc. and manage potential conflicts well so that they do not harm us.
- Make your contribution to the community: do not give others the negative impression that you receive more from the scientific community than you do: participate in reviewing articles, organizing events, publishing data in open access, etc.
- Do not commit to tasks that you will not be able to complete: measure your strength, do not accept more tasks than you can take on as you should not be perceived as someone who never meets deadlines or completes tasks. Learn to say no, for the sake of your own reputation.
- Don’t do poorly-worked reviews and evaluations: when agreeing to review a job or project proposal, try to be polite, diligent, constructive and considerate, but also be honest, offer your honest professional opinion about it. Both editors and authors (the authorship of many reviews is recognized by their tone and expression) will value your work, which will have a positive impact on your reputation.
- Do not write letters of recommendation to someone who does not deserve it: if you do not feel confident about writing a letter of recommendation to someone who has asked you to do so, do not do it. If the letter does not put the individual in a good light, he or she will have a bad image of you; if the letter exaggerates your virtues, your reputation may be at stake when the individual does not live up to expectations.
- Never plagiarize or “cook” your data: the electronic age has given us countless tools to handle data, images, text, etc., but the principles of integrity are the same as they were a hundred years ago. Master the principles of ethical use of information, because the identification of plagiarism or manipulation, even if well intentioned, can be catastrophic to your reputation.
Woolston (2015) also points out some characteristics that the researcher should take care of. Firstly, he/she should have a reputation as a “team player”, i.e., be able to work for the common good, even if this work does not yield immediate returns (peer review, supervision of students and collaborators, etc.). Secondly, he/she must have a presence in social networks because “if you don’t build your online reputation, others will do it for you”. Thirdly, you must be aware of the cascading effect of reputation: at first, reputation is built on quality work, then ideas take a back seat and the reputation associated with a name precedes the quality of the work (although if the quality of the work is no longer good, the reputation will begin to suffer).
How to build a reputation as a “team player”? Michaut (2011) offers the following recommendations, in particular on the importance of collaborating with professional or scientific associations:
- Collect information on professional or scientific associations that match your interests.
- Define your objectives and expectations: gain experience in organizing conferences? increase your contacts?
- Define your limits: for how long?
- Jump into the pool and get involved: contact the management team and be open to collaborate on any good opportunities that come your way, attend meetings, participate in mailing lists or social networks.
- Let others know what you want to do: what are you good at, what tasks can you help with best? It’s not about showing how involved you are by doing every task that falls to you, but “commit to doing what you can do and do it (to the best of your ability).”
- Dedicate regular time: research can eat up your time if you don’t set limits; take your contribution to the community seriously by dedicating regular time to it.
- Organize your time: plan your time for each task and make adjustments as needed; with practice you will learn how much time each task really takes and how to be realistic in your commitments.
- Work in a team: working in a team gives you not only help in completing projects, but also the opportunity to receive quick feedback and guidance on your work.
- Encourage others to collaborate: explain to others what you do and what it does for you; if you know someone who is good at something to collaborate.
- Enjoy yourself as much as you can: if you enjoy what you do, you will find the time to do it; if you don’t enjoy it, end your commitments and stop the activity.