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Science in Mind

TED talks don’t do much to boost scientist’s careers

Wildly popular streaming Internet videos of talks given at the TED conference — short for Technology, Entertainment, Design — have helped create a growing class of public intellectuals. TED talks elevate their speakers well beyond the ivory tower or the corporate boardroom, by presenting their ideas in highly palatable, 18-minute presentations that easily go viral. The format would seem to be a model for popularizing scientific ideas — often described as a worthy and necessary goal, in a society where scientific literacy is often seen as lacking. But do scientists get credit for it?

A group of researchers from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Indiana decided to study the impact of the talks and found that TED stardom does not help build professors’ academic stature among colleagues, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.

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The Boston area has more than its fair share of TED celebrities who have pitched their ideas to broad audiences via the widely watched online videos. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s talk on happiness has been viewed more than 5 million times on the TED website since 2004; MIT professor Pattie Maes’s 2009 talk on wearable technology that her graduate student Pranav Mistry invented has now been viewed more than 7 million times. Among TED’s academic presenters, MIT has had the most TED presenters and Harvard ranks third.

The popularity of the conference series — its videos surpassed 1 billion views last November — attests to its success in engaging an audience. But what are the effects of popularizing science on a researcher’s career, the researchers wondered? And were the videos really a good vehicle for presenting ideas, or more of a way to spotlight talented communicators?

Unlike the Nobel Prize, which has been found to provide a bump to the number of times a scientist’s work is cited by his or her colleagues, the TED talks appear to provide no comparable boost, the researchers reported. The authors even write in the paper that the benefits of the extra exposure may be canceled out by the “tendency of fellow researchers to question the presenter’s motivations.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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