In the era of social media there are now many different ways that a scientist can build their public profile; the publication of high-quality scientific papers being just one. While social media is a valuable tool for outreach and the sharing of ideas, there is a danger that this form of communication is gaining too high a value and that we are losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices. To help quantify this, I propose the ‘Kardashian Index’, a measure of discrepancy between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.
There are many scientists who, with hindsight, did not get much recognition for their achievements while they were alive. Consider Mary Anning, a fossil collector and paleontologist who lived in the early 19th century. Her meticulous recording and prolific findings contributed to the fundamental changes in our understanding of natural history, including the accepted view of extinction events. Yet, because of her sex and religious beliefs, much of her work was never recognized by her peers, and I expect you have never heard of her. Or Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who is credited with writing the first ever computer program for the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer designed by Charles Babbage. Despite her contribution, and obvious genius, she is much less well known than her male contemporaries. For a long time, the same could be said of Rosalind Franklin, whose work on determining the structure of DNA was largely ignored until years after her death.
It may be no coincidence that all of these overlooked heroes were women. I will return to this later.
Now consider Kim Kardashian; she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics or the arts (although apparently she does have a scientific mind ), she is one of the most followed people on twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google. Her notoriety is said to have stemmed from an inadvertent internet release of a video featuring her and a boyfriend in a private moment. While her Wikipedia entry describes her as a successful businesswoman , this is due most likely to her fame generating considerable income through brand endorsements. So you could say that her celebrity buys success, which buys greater celebrity. Her fame has meant that comments by Kardashian on issues such as Syria have been widely reported in the press . Sadly, her interjection on the crisis has not yet led to a let-up in the violence.
I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned). We are all aware that certain people are seemingly invited as keynote speakers, not because of their contributions to the published literature but because of who they are. In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety. I was recently involved in a discussion where it was suggested that someone should be invited to speak at a meeting ‘because they will tweet about it and more people will come’. If that is not the research community equivalent of buying a Kardashian endorsement I don’t know what is.
I don’t blame Kim Kardashian or her science equivalents for exploiting their fame, who wouldn’t? However, I think it’s time that we develop a metric that will clearly indicate if a scientist has an overblown public profile so that we can adjust our expectations of them accordingly. In order to quantify the problem and to devise a solution, I have compared the numbers of followers that research scientists have on twitter with the number of citations they have for their peer-reviewed work. This analysis has identified clear outliers, or Kardashians, within the scientific community. I propose a new metric, which I call the ‘Kardashian Index’, which allows a simple quantification of the over, or under, performance of a scientist on social media.
In this preliminary proof-of-concept study, I selected research scientists and recorded their number of followers. I did not devise a clever way of doing this randomly (after all this is just a bit of fun) but tried to pick a randomish selection of 40 scientists. I used Web of Knowledge to get citation metrics on these individuals. Obviously, there are caveats, as I may not have found them all if they have a common name or they have changed address, but I did my best. I tried to pick only individuals who have been on Twitter for some time and I deliberately overlooked people who were on BIG genome papers such as the first human genomes as this over-inflated the citation scores. I also captured whether the scientists were men or women. I had intended to collect more data but it took a long time and I therefore decided 40 would be enough to make a point. Please don’t take this as representative of my normal research rigor.
I took the number of Twitter followers as a measure of ‘celebrity’ while the number of citations was taken as a measure of ‘scientific value’ (we can argue about that another time). The data gathered are shown in Figure 1.
Twitter followers versus number of scientific citations for a sort-of-random sample of researcher tweeters. Red crosses represent female tweeters and blue crosses represent male tweeters. The black trendline describes the best fit to the data. Those...
While aware that the analysis is flawed and lacks statistical rigor, it is a relief to see that there is some kind of positive trend in scientific value when compared with celebrity. The trend can be described by Equation 1:
Where F is the number of twitter followers and C is the number of citations.
As a typical number of followers can now be calculated using this formula, I propose that the Kardashian Index (K-index) can be calculated as follows in Equation 2:
Where F(a) is the actual number of twitter followers of researcher X and F(c) is the number researcher X should have given their citations. Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued. Here, I propose that those people whose K-index is greater than 5 can be considered ‘Science Kardashians’; these individuals are highlighted in Figure 1.
In an age dominated by the cult of celebrity we, as scientists, need to protect ourselves from mindlessly lauding shallow popularity and take an informed and critical view of the value we place on the opinion of our peers. Social media makes it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others. Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert. But on Twitter, for example, the ‘top tweet’ on any given subject will not necessarily come from an expert, it will come from the most followed person. If Kim Kardashian commented on the value of the ENCODE project, her tweet would get more retweets and favorites than the rest of the scientific community combined. Experts on the Syrian conflict will tell you how frustrating that can be.
I propose that all scientists calculate their own K-index on an annual basis and include it in their Twitter profile. Not only does this help others decide how much weight they should give to someone’s 140 character wisdom, it can also be an incentive - if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers.
Finally on a serious note
My introduction highlights the fact that women have a history of being ignored by the scientific community. Interestingly, in my analysis, very few women (only one in fact) had a highly inflated Twitter following, while most (11/14) had fewer followers than would be expected. Hence, most Kardashians are men! This ‘study’ does not prove that we, as a community, are continuing to ignore women, or if women are less likely to engage in self-promotion, but it is consistent with either or both of these scenarios.
If you would like to discuss this further please follow me on Twitter: @neilhall_uk. At the time of writing, my K-index in only marginally above 1. A few tweets linking me with the word ‘Kardashian’ should put my K-index through the roof.
The author declares that he has no competing interests.
Do you remember coming home from school to tell your mother or father another kid had been nasty to you in the playground? And all you wanted was to be his friend?
Then spare a thought for Donald Trump, who was going through the same troubles with a moody young pal from North Korea as his tour of Asia came to an end last weekend.
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” Trump asked his mommy – I mean, his 42.9 million Twitter followers. “Oh well,” he added poignantly, “I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”
Tracking Trump: mood swings in Asia and election struggles at home
Poor Donald. Maybe get some sleep. This has been a long trip and you’ve had to deal with some difficult geopolitical issues. Things never seem quite as bad in the morning. I’m sure Kim just wants to be your friend, too. He has a funny way of showing it, that’s all.
Another friendship was proving tricky for Trump, too. Do you remember at school when all of your friends picked on one of your schoolmates and blamed them for something – say, trying to influence a foreign election using an army of bots and leaked emails – and you were the only one who believed they didn’t do it?
“Every time he sees me he says ‘I didn’t do that’ and I really believe that when he tells me that,” Trump said of Vladimir Putin. “He really seems to be insulted by it and he says he didn’t do it.”
But the other friends didn’t want to listen.
While Trump was rounding out his 12-day trip with a visit to another blood brother, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, back home the scandal involving the Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore deepened, with a new woman coming forward to claim the controversial former judge sexually assaulted her when she was 16. (Moore denies the accusations.)
A spokeswoman for Trump – who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct or assault by numerous women – said Moore should step aside if the allegations were proven to be true, and over the weekend the president claimed he did not know a lot about the case because he did “not watch much television”. Regular readers of Trump’s Twitter feed – which on Wednesday included a complaint about having been forced to watch CNN while in the Philippines and which frequently contains free advertising for Fox News – might find that hard to believe.
Oh, and it emerged that Trump’s son Donald Jr, the son who met a Russian lawyer last June in an attempt to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, had exchanged direct messages with WikiLeaks before the US election, and promoted a link to the group’s tool to search through hacked Clinton emails after WikiLeaks sent it to him.
On Tuesday, Trump had had enough of his gruelling trip across Asia and cut it short after his final engagement, the East Asia Summit, was delayed by about two hours. He also missed a group photo with the other leaders. You snooze, you lose.
Oh, and in Congress, the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, acknowledged that a former Trump campaign aide had informed him during the 2016 election about ties to Russian officials, appearing to contradict his own previous testimony.
On Wednesday, Trump announced with evident relief: “Just returned from Asia after 12 very successful days. Great to be home!”
But there was bad news waiting for him. After all his attempts to buddy up with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader had gone and sentenced him to death. Talk about being ungrateful.
And talking about being ungrateful, Trump had a feeling that the UCLA basketball players accused of shoplifting in China wouldn’t thank him for his efforts to free them. But they did in fact thank him.
While Trump had kept his comments about Moore to a minimum, when a woman accused the Democratic senator and former comedian Al Franken of sexual misconduct the president was less restrained.
“The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? .....” he tweeted, seeming to drift off dangerously into the realms of fantasy, probably not a good idea for someone who, as mentioned above, has been accused of sexual assault and has boasted of grabbing women’s genitals.
Oh, and it emerged that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, shared emails within Donald Trump’s team about WikiLeaks and a “backdoor overture” from Russia during the election campaign and failed to turn them over to investigators. He was there at that meeting with the Russian lawyer and Don Jr, too.
On Friday, Trump’s feud with much of the sporting world continued, as the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, who captured their first national championship at the Women’s Final Four in April, declined an invitation to visit the White House. Oh well, he tried so hard to be their friend – and maybe someday that will happen!