by Judith Curry
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. – Neil Hall
If you are scratching your head wondering who Kim Kardashian is, she is a reality TV star with millions of fans and online followers. When I first spotted tweets about the Kardashian factor, I rolled my eyes and ignored them. I inadvertently landed on an article about the Kardashian factor by following a tweet from Kirk Englehardt. Its interesting, sort of entertaining and irritating at the same time, but the article and the responses to it are raising some important issues.
The Kardashian Index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists
Abstract. 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.
Published in Genome Biology [link] to complete paper. Excerpts from the paper:
Consider Kim Kardashian; she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics or the arts, she is one of the most followed people on twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google.
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 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.
The K-index is illustrated in the following figure:
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.
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.
We the Kardashians
There is quite a twitter kerfuffle over this paper, with many blog posts responding to the KI. This one in particular struck me, by neuroscientist Micha Allen: We the Kardashians. Excerpts:
I’m sure there were many scientists or scholars out there who amid the endless cycle of insane job pressure, publish or perish horse-racing, and blood feuding for grants thought, ‘gee I’d better just stop this publishing thing entirely and tweet instead’. Seriously though – this represents a fundamental and common misunderstand of the point of all this faffing about on the internet. Followers, impact, and notoriety are all poorly understood side-effects of this process; they are neither the means nor goal. But I wouldn’t expect someone to understand that who clearly believes the end all point science is to produce papers in prestigious journals. Forget about less concrete (and misleading) contributions like freely shared code, data, or thoughts.
While a (sorta) funny joke, it is this point that is done the most disservice by Neil’s article. We (the Kardashians) are democratizing science. We are filtering the literally unending deluge of papers to try and find the most outrageous, the most interesting, and the most forgotten, so that they can see the light of day beyond wherever they were published and forgotten. We seek these papers to generate discussion and to garner attention where it is needed most. We are the academy’s newest, first line of defense, contextualizing results when the media runs wild with them. We tweet often because there is a lot to tweet, and we gain followers because the things we tweet are interesting. And we do all of this without the comfort of a lofty CV or high impact track record, with little concert assurance that it will even benefit us, all while still trying to produce the standard signs of success. And it may not seem like it now – but in time it will be clear that what we do is just as much a part of the scientific process as those lofty Nature papers. Of course – we are only fallible human beings, trying to find and create utility within a new frontier. We may not be the filter science deserves – but we are the one it needs. Wear your Kardshian index with pride.
You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance
In apparent defense of the Kardashians, there is a NYTimes article from last February: Professors, We Need You! Excerpts:
SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
Social media and academia
Social media is changing the world, and academia hasn’t quite figured out what to do about it. On issues relevant to public debate, social media is rivaling published academic research in its impact. Social media is leveling the playing feed and democratizing science.
See this article interviewing Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan Professor of Business, entitled Should professors engage in public debate? His response:
“We should think about encouraging and training academics on how to engage in a public debate, how to talk to the media, and show them how to select the appropriate outlets,” Hoffman says. “I think the time is right.”
“We still have an apprentice model and you still have to earn your bones,” he says. “My advice to junior faculty would be to start slowly. Focus on the bread and butter, and get published in the academic journals. But keep your toe in the water. It’s not feasible to tell young professors to check their passions at the door and wait until they get tenure to reignite them.”
“I like to hover between the academic work and practice,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like doing research for academic journals and teaching. But I also try to bring that to the real world. I don’t want to measure my career just by counting citations. I want to actually have an impact, and I suspect others do, too.”
JC message to social scientists: once again, I see an area that is ripe for scholarship by social scientists – documenting and understanding the use of social media by academic scholars. The climate field is an interesting one – the population of established, senior climate scientists that are active in social media is small, but there is a growing number of young climate scientists on twitter.
Neil Hall’s article reflects an elite senior white male academic attitude – resentful of these ‘upstarts’ that are garnering attention (‘shallow popularity’) and influence without having ‘earned their bones’ and being blessed by the elite academics (‘the opinion of our peers’). This democratization of academic influence, enabled by social media, is challenging the power and influence of the elite (senior) academics.
The skills required to be successful in social media include good writing/communication skills and the abilities to synthesize, integrate, and provide context. Those who are most successful at social media also have a sense of humor and can connect to broader cultural issues – they also develop a trustworthy persona. These are nontrivial skills, and they are general traits of people that have impact. But these skills do not get recognized in academia.
I get zero academic credit or incentives for my blogging and tweeting. This is not a knock on my institution, Georgia Tech: GT tends to be relatively avant garde in such things. For example, VP Stephen Fleming is very active on Twitter. Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication and Marketing, is very active in social media. Englehardt’s position is a new one, and he is leading the development of an Integrated Strategic Communication and Marketing Plan for Research. So things might be changing, but as of right now, no academic credit or other incentives are given for such activities.
So, why do I do it? I’m interested in having an impact beyond the narrow group of my academic peers – frankly, I don’t place much value on the opinion of my peers, especially since many are mired in a cohesive moral community on the subject of climate change. I want to continue to explore social media as a tool for engaging with with public, group learning, exploring the science-policy interface, and pondering the many dimensions of the wicked climate problem. I would like to contribute to the public debate and support policy deliberations, I would like to educate a broader and larger group of people, and finally I would like to learn from people outside the group of my academic peers (and social media is a great way to network). I am trying to provoke people to think outside the box of their own comfort zone on the complex subject of climate change. You would think that these are the things that a university faculty member should be doing (it sure seems like the kind of things we should be imparting to our students) – but no, instead we are rewarded for being recognized by our peers for traditional scholarly publications and for ‘playing the ivory tower game’ by the rules established by elite senior scientists.
Here’s how I do the calculus for my own intellectual activities. As per google scholar, I have a total of 12,000 citations of my publications (since my first publication in 1983). Climate Etc. gets on average about 12,000 ‘hits’ per day, and 300-400 comments. I can spend my time blogging, discussing topics on which there is significant public interest, or I can write an academic paper, pay $1500 to get it published (hopefully in a high impact journal), so that 300 or so people can read it behind paywall. Since I am a senior tenured faculty member, I have the luxury of choosing to spend a significant amount of my time on social media outreach and engagement, which is growing my impact as a scholar in ways that I think matter.
IMO academics should be rewarded both for traditional publication in journals and for having a broader impact in impact in social media. Not surprisingly, young academics seem more interested in social media. I expect that universities who want to attract and retain the best and brightest young scientists will have to be open to broadening the rewards system to reward impact beyond the ivory tower. Further, social media is also a great way to have an impact for academics who feel marginalized by ‘system’ or who just aren’t interested in playing the ‘ivory tower game’ established by the senior elites – academics who have an alternative vision and are committed to social media outreach. Too often, those who are marginalized by the senior elites seem to be females and minorities.
So . . . here’s to seeing social media and the associated skill set becoming better recognized within the academic system. But PUHLEEZE, we need a new metric that does not dismiss social media impact as ‘shallow popularity’ or celebrity seeking by invoking the name of Kardashian.