Neil Hall from the University of Liverpool has published a very interesting mini-study on scientists and Twitter. He developed a metric that compares the popularity of scientists on Twitter to the impact of their publications within peer-reviewed journals. The metric is called the Kardashian Index, a reference to the fact that Kim Kardashian became wildly popular for no apparent reason, and a wink at those scientists who get Twitter popularity without having accomplished as much as others in their scientific career. Neil Hall is not necessarily critiquing the individuals who use Twitter to their advantage – he simply creates a metric that finds discrepancies between Twitter popularity and scientific popularity. The idea is brilliant, but in my view the short article is based on an incorrect premise. The premise is that science and social media contributions are two fundamentally separate things that can be compared to each other. He writes:
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.
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.
The view that emerges from the article is that what scientists do on Twitter is not science or education – it is self-promotion, shouting, or mindless small talk. I hope that sharing part of my experience on social media will convince you that this is wrong.
As I read about the new index developed by Neil Hall, I quickly wanted to know where I would lie on his graph. I was not surprised to find myself within the top of the Kardashian Index. I am a postdoc who started Twitter very early, systematically releasing tweets about recent publications in neuroscience and cognitive science for almost 4 years. I can easily gather statistics about my contribution to Twitter since most of my links are tracked for the number of clicks they generate. Over the last 4 years, I drove tens of thousands of people to peer-reviewed research and PubMed abstracts, responded to hundreds of questions from the general public about the scientific research of other labs, and engaged in direct conversation with experts about current issues in neuroscience research. I also founded NEURO.tv, publishing 1-hour long conversations between experts in neuroscience on YouTube. We do not talk about the weather on NEURO.tv, we talk about what matters to current experts in the many branches of neuroscience. I propose that we stop seeing social media as a side to science and academia – science is advancing and being disseminated on social media, and therefore Twitter is not different from the conference room of a University where future directions of research are determined, or knowledge is being exchanged. If the attendance at a scientific symposium might be somewhat indicative of its relevance to current scientific research, then we might want to consider that the following of a Twitter account may also be somewhat indicative of the quality and relevance of the information it provides. If we are to recognize that science is not just a list of results from experiments, but that it includes the process by which we think of hypotheses and exchange ideas, then we are bound to accept that social media is an institution where science happens.
I once asked Richard Dawkins how he would summarize his philosophy of science education. He said something along those lines: “Just put the science out there and people will find it interesting.“. The more we follow Dawkins’ mantra, the more the line is blurred between science education and science itself. If I discuss with Micah Allen about the fascinating question of why thoughts and feelings have evolved on NEURO.tv, we engage in the same thought process that would happen in a laboratory or scientific meeting. As a result of this discussion, if people found it fascinating, I will get more Twitter followers. This is not the result of a defect of the system that needs fixing. It is science, happening right there, in a public, transparent way that was not possible before.
When I discuss with Katherine Bryant on Twitter about the relation between hard sciences and the humanities, the reflection we engage in is similar to that happening in scientific symposiums. When I convince 170 backers, many of whom have PhDs and are professors, to fund a YouTube show about neuroscience on Kickstarter, the process is not so different from that of grant applications for scientific and educational projects, which are reviewed by three experts to determine if they get funded by the government. Scientific experiments can also be funded on crowdfunding platforms, as many have shown. Finally, when I link to a research article from my Twitter account, I am “quoting” it in the same way as I would in a peer-reviewed article. I am acknowledging that I have read it and that it may influence my current thoughts or future experiments.
The popular scientists on Twitter typically have a recipe that led to their success: consistency, sharing of good peer-reviewed research, honest interventions and high-quality information. Those are exactly the characteristics we would be looking for when hiring a lecturer or professor.
I am reminded of a discussion I had with a young scientist for whom I have the greatest respect. I mentioned an idea I had been thinking about for a long time which consisted in creating an hybrid molecular device using a polymerase and a voltage-sensitive channel to record neural activity on DNA strands. This is pure genius, he said. He then asked if I had published the idea in a peer-reviewed journal, and recommended I do so. I then told him that I had already published the idea in a blog post. Oh, was his reaction. It seemed as if the idea was much less exciting to him because it was published in a blog post. This story shows that the snobbish attitude toward everything that is open and transparent is not just affecting old scientists, we are currently training scientists younger than me to think that science is not about the ideas and knowledge it produces, it is about the building of CVs.
Neil Hall shows a discrepancy between science citations and Twitter popularity, but perhaps the resolution to this problem is not in the rejection of Twitter following as a measure of scientific success. Rather, we may want to recognize that, yes, science is now happening on Twitter too. The inclusion of a metric of scientific success based on the number of Twitter followers may sound ludicrous, but other metrics of scientific success are just as ridiculous, so we may simply be bound to acknowledge that, in general, numbers aren’t good at quantifying scientific success. The Kardashian index may be one more case illustrating that any two measures of scientific success will always find some outliers that get classified well in one system and not so well in the other.
Two things seem to be implied by the article. One, that we have a good basis to measure scientific success, or at least that such a measure theoretically exists. Two, that this measure can then be compared to social media profiles to look for discrepancies. I would suggest an alternative way to look at the data presented by Neil Hall. The Kardashian index not only shows the failure of Twitter follower counts to accurately represent scientific success (no one expected that), it shows that science and education are multi-dimensional endeavors, and some individuals find ways to accomplish progress and influence their peers using a different path than that which is expected by academia. These intellectuals simply have found a way to disseminate their knowledge that does not always results in increasing the number of times their research gets quoted in the research articles of the next generation. In other words, perhaps we might want to consider that the number of times a researcher is quoted in future research is not a perfect representation of the value of his contributions to science.
This view reverses the problem identified by Neil Hall: we currently have intellectuals who teach, research and engage in a thought process in the public sphere, to the benefit of their followers, and academia has not yet found a way to evaluate and reward this part of their contribution to society.