The Kardashian index: social media and academic celebrity

My notes on Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome biology, 15(7), 424.

The link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation used to be more straight forward. A scholar would publish journal articles, gaining standing amongst their peers through the quality of those articles or the lack thereof. That at least was the idea, even if the reality was often messier. In this short paper, Neil Hall seeks to analyse a trend which has undermined this predictable relation, namely the rise of the social media celebrity within the academy:

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.

To construct what he calls the Kardashian index, Hall compared the number of followers which research scientists have on Twitter with the number of their cited publications. He picked a ‘randomish’ selection of 40 scientists and gathered citation data through web of science. He tried to exclude early adopters whose Twitter following would reflect this and those who were named on foundational papers which inflated their score. Their Twitter followers were taken as a measure of celebrity and their citations as a measure of scientific value. He uses this to propose the Kardashian index, which I’m not sure how to convey properly without reproducing half a page of the paper:

A high K-index suggests a scientist who is over-celebrated, whereas a low K-index suggests one who is undervalued. His proposal is that those with a K-index over 5 are scientific Kardashians. What matters is less the details of this largely facetious paper and more the point he’s trying to make:

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.

Rather than seeing social media as undermining the link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation, I’d suggest it is a further complication of an already complicated relationship. It doesn’t seem clear to me that the genie can be put back into the bottle, though perhaps I have a vested interest in saying that as someone with a high K-index. But as much as this paper is facetious, the idea of trying to measure the links between collegial reputation, citational performance and social media popularity is one I’m increasingly fascinated by, even if doing it in so openly normative a way is a bit off putting.

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