Why Do Scientist Badges Work?

Why Do Scientist Badges WorkIf you’ve ever seen me do any version of a talk on motivational design, you know I’m skeptical about the utility of badges for engagement. It’s not that badges are a bad tool. It’s that they get misused. Programs may award a badge for the wrong behavior. Or the badge may encourage cheating and shortcuts to get the reward. Or, while a virtual badge rarely carries any real value, it might be too much reward for the behavior, eventually leading to lower engagement levels. So, I was surprised to see that an effort to award scientists digital badges displayed alongside their publications in search results was gathering momentum.

The idea behind the badges is this: If you’re a social science researcher willing to make your original data sets available for further analysis or to support replication attempts, you’re awarded an icon that displays alongside your paper information. Readers and researchers can then quickly tell whether or not they can reach out for access to the data. The badge effort coincides with an increased scrutiny on reproducibility in the social sciences, led in large part by Brian Nosek and his work with the Open Science Collaboration.

An example of the digital badges displayed alongside academic publications whose authors have committed to share data.
An example of the digital badges displayed alongside academic publications whose authors have committed to share data.

The badge effort seems to be working, in the sense that many scientists publishing in the journals that offer them are opting to display them. Moreover, efforts to contact the scientists with the badges have suggested that researchers are following through on their promise to make data available. So people want the badges, and they are engaging in the behaviors relevant to them.

I have a few ideas about why these badges are able to influence behavior more than the badges I receive for choosing an ale over a lager or walking 20,000 steps.

  1. These are not really badges. I mean, they are, but they’re not. These are surely not really a badge in the traditional gamification sense. Yes, they are earned by completing an activity. If you think about badges as fulfilling two purposes–rewarding a behavior and serving as an outward signifier–these particular badges are much more heavily weighted toward the latter. They are really a professional signal that a scientist can be relied upon to provide a certain caliber of product. In that sense, they rely more upon supporting a sense of relatedness than a sense of competence, which is where traditional badges tend to lean.
  2. They reward a universal good. Between the high-profile efforts of the Open Science Collaboration to encourage study replication and the general tenets of science, these badges aren’t rewarding controversial qualities. Rather, they’re tied to characteristics that are almost unquestionably desirable in the scientific community. These badges essentially say, the research this person does is legitimate and will stand up to professional scrutiny. Who doesn’t want that to be true of their work?
  3. They provide instrumental value. To the extent that the badges work to draw more eyes to papers written by the scientists earning them, they are instrumental to other valued outcomes. Specifically, papers that are more read and cited are more likely to contribute to grants, tenure, and other positive professional achievements. The badge itself may not be that useful, but the increased exposure that comes from them is. So why wouldn’t you apply for and display it?
  4. Everybody’s doing it. The Open Science Collaboration has gotten tremendous international news coverage, and several well-known social scientists have been unmasked by replication efforts. There’s some social pressure at play. If you don’t explicitly declare yourself in support of replication efforts, does it mean people might suspect you’re not? Better safe than sorry. Opt for the badge.

I’ll be interested to see if the badge system persists in academic publications. I can see it expanding to include other characteristics, such as the topics a researcher studies, whether a paper has been cited over a threshold number of times, or the type of research included. But, if time doesn’t prove out a value for having these badges–if they become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless, for example–then I hope they will fall by the wayside.