As Researchers, We Should also Talk about Our Failures

The life of a researcher is far from a mere chronicle of successes. Perhaps we could, from time to time, also share when our endeavours fall short.  

In just a few months, a familiar pattern will unfold. My social media feeds will become flooded with announcements from colleagues celebrating the acquisition of research grants from prestigious institutions such as the Swedish Research Council and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. I have done exactly the same several times. It is no secret that securing research funding is challenging, and it involves a lot of hard work. Often, it’s not until the second or even third attempt that the funds come through, guaranteeing several years of research. The elation experienced is entirely warranted. 

The act of sharing one’s joy upon receiving new research funding, the publication of a book, or the acceptance of an article in a reputable journal is entirely understandable. I, too, partake in such practices, using my blog, X (formerly known as Twitter), and LinkedIn as platforms to share news about my research accomplishments. However, I maintain a more reserved stance on Facebook, choosing to maintain a measure of privacy regarding my academic pursuits. Occasionally, a glimpse of the cover of a newly authored book may find its way onto my profile. 

We behave much like any other influencer.

Yet, much like how Twitter (or X, as it is called now) fails to reflect the the entirety of Swedish public opinion, the updates provided by researchers on social media fall short of providing an accurate portrayal of the daily life of a researcher. The truth is that funding applications are routinely declined by granting body, articles submitted for publication do not meet with acceptance, and there are occasions when entire research projects falter. Nevertheless, such setbacks seldom find expression on our social media platforms. The collective narrative of researchers across public arenas predominantly accentuates their successes. In this regard, we behave much like any other influencer.  

In the same vein that we engage in dialogues surrounding the adverse effects of social media in nurturing unrealistic expectations among youth and others, we should probably also look at ourselves. Should we not also talk about our limitations and missteps in research, in addition to our triumphs? Maybe from time to time we could also share when things don’t go so well. It is worth noting that such transparency cannot be reasonably expected from doctoral candidates or junior researchers. But, experienced professors, such as myself, should consider adopting a more generous stance, showing that not everything is a success story. 

Behind the crazy success stories hide the disappointments of others, setbacks, and many tears

In fact, a highly accomplished colleague recently demonstrated such candor on Twitter (yes, I am aware it is now known as X), when none of his papers secured acceptance for our most pivotal conference. He extended his congratulations to those whose submissions had been successful and candidly acknowledged in his tweet that sometimes things don’t go as planned. 

Perhaps we should consider doing this more frequently, to provide a realistic glimpse into the research life. Behind the extraordinary success stories hide the disappointments of others, setbacks, and many tears. Or as another successful colleague once said when I was upset after an article was rejected: “Bengt, I have been rejected everywhere!”

The op-ed was originally written in Swedish and featured in Curie magazine.