Can incentives motivate scientists to participate in social media?
Yesterday in the Kitchen, David Crotty (a trained scientist himself) proposed that publishers need to consider offering more incentives to scientists if they wish to seek their participation.
In his piece, Crotty gives several examples of stick and carrot incentives to encourage participation:
- a professor refusing to write letters of recommendation if students don’t use the lab’s social media’s website (a stick)
- paying science bloggers to write (carrot)
- sharing revenue with authors (carrot)
- providing open access article processing charge discounts to loyal authors (carrot)
The kind of incentives that David discusses are direct incentives — the kind of incentives that economists often talk about when attempting to motivate particular behavior. These direct incentives are easy to understand, and we find them everywhere: taxing soda reduces consumption; coupons and discounts encourage spending; employee stock options increases loyalty; etcetera, etcetera.
What is not acknowledged is that science is based on a strong indirect incentive called reputation. I call it an indirect incentive because reputation is an intangible reward. Reputation can be exchanged for a good job, a grant, an editorial position, but it isn’t worth anything itself. Reputation plus a small coffee at Starbucks still costs you $1.90.
Reputation is the coin that drives science and explains its publication system. In describing the sociology of science nearly 40 years ago, Warren O. Hagstrom in his seminal work The Scientific Community (Basic Books, 1965) summarizes the process of science in a single sentence:
The organization of science consists of an exchange of social recognition for information.
Unlike authors of fiction, who write to be compensated financially for their manuscripts, scientists gift their manuscripts to publishers — some even paying the publisher to take it — in return for the public dissemination of their work. Such gift-giving establishes the donor as a scientist, and the acknowledgment of that gift by qualified peers (through citation and other public forms of credit) builds reputation.
If we understand this reputation system, other processes in science make much more sense. It doesn’t matter whether it was Amazon, Sony, HP, or Apple that came out with the first e-book reader. But it does matter (a lot!) who was the first scientist to publish an important discovery. Disputes over priority can be fierce and pithy, pitting one group of supporters against another. Time-stamping the submission, review, and publication cycle helps reveal who came first. Even subject repositories like the arXiv date-stamp manuscripts and adhere to documenting the revision process down to the second. Coming in second doesn’t mean very much for science.
Recognition is a form of intellectual property. Since science puts a premium on originality and on advancing the field, there is intense pressure on being first. This is where the rewards are found. Those who are not acknowledged, his accomplishments are forgotten. — Robert K. Merton 
“Fine,” you say. “Science is based on a reputation system. Reputation still works as an incentive for desired behavior, whether it is indirect or not. Right?”
Right, but the indirect nature of reputation as an incentive insulates scientists from some of the blatant effects of direct compensation. Reward a doctor for every test that he prescribes and you are likely to get, well, the American healthcare system. Pay bankers for every CDO they build, and you shouldn’t be surprised at the risk these individuals take with other people’s money.
We are all driven by forms of direct compensation.
Yet, the indirect nature of the reputation system helps keep scientists insulated from inappropriate behavior. Reputation is cumulative. It takes years to build a portfolio of publications, grants, and awards. But reputation is also fragile — get caught publishing fraudulent data, for example, and you can kiss your entire career goodbye. The permanency of the publication record ensures that bad acts are kept in the minds of one’s peers.
So while I agree with David that publishers need to consider incentives if they wish to motivate scientists to participate in new ventures, I’m leery that providing direct compensation is the way to go. It’s just too tempting.
Unlike executive compensation, there is no golden parachute in science.
 Merton, R. K. 1957. Priorities in scientific discovery: a chapter in the sociology of science. American Sociological Review 22: 635-659.