Keeping Up With The Khemists

Twitter is causing controversy these days with scientists (not limited to chemists) sounding off on genomics researcher Neil Hall’s proposed K value, short for Kardashian Index, which is calculated by dividing the number of Twitter followers a scientist has by the number of peer-reviewed publications. Named for reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian (in case you did not know), Hall’s recent paper entitled “The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists,” pokes fun at scientists who have become Twitter ‘celebrities’ and jokingly suggests that higher visibility in social media may eclipse academic contribution. However while written in jest, Hall’s new K value probes the tenuous relationship currently being built between science and social media and the pros and cons of linking the two. On one hand it’s fantastic that researchers can communicate with followers and peers in a more accessible format than an intimidating science journal, but on the other it’s a gentle reminder that celebrity and credibility are not quite equal.

While some scientists are more receptive to the satire, in general reactions are overwhelmingly negative. Many are offended by the suggestion that a disproportion of Twitter followers and publications contradicts their research prowess, as well as the sexism that has been brought into question. Science Magazine revealed a list of “The top 50 science stars of Twitter,” in which tweeting scientists were listed by K value. The author of the piece said that “to identify Twitter science stars, we began with celebrity scientists such as Tyson and checked out which scientists they followed. We also referenced online lists of scientists to follow on Twitter.” The end result was that of the 50 ‘top science stars,’ a mere four women made the cut. While the methods used to report the list have received a backlash under the hashtag #WomenTweetScienceToo, the culture of science and media again comes under the metaphorical microscope as women tend to keep a lower profile due to the higher risk of harassment faced. As told to Science, astronomer Pamela Gay (33rd on the list) said, “At some point, you just get fed up with all the ‘why are you ugly’ or ‘why are you hot’ comments.” However despite the perhaps questionable methods used to survey Twitter, the index and the generated list emphasize the problem that women are especially susceptible to being overlooked not only in their field of specialty, but by the general public as well.

As one of the opponents of the K index, neuroscientist Jean-Francois Gariepy took to his blog to discuss the positive benefits of social media sharing as a rebuttal to Hall’s paper, which presents a very valid argument but perhaps misses the crucial statement of the paper: “Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert.” The K index is not to say that scientists on Twitter should command any less respect, but more importantly that in this day and age of having such easy access to the general public, scientific credibility is needed behind the popularity. According to Science, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson has the highest K index (2.42 million followers), and obviously this is well deserved, as he should rightly be celebrated as one of the most visible brilliant minds of our time. Yet in terms of Twitter followers he is beaten by Mehmet Oz, of The Dr. Oz Show, who commands 3.51 million followers yet despite having excellent credentials was recently caught promoting a fraudulent health supplements, and admitted to a Senate panel that the supplements “don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” So when comparing the visibility versus contributions to science both men have made, Hall’s K value begins to make more sense.

In a brief response to the controversy Hall himself tweeted, “Clearly I’m glad that people are discussing the K index. It is a joke! I don’t have anything against students with few publications. The point, clearly not communicated well enough communicated is metrics are daft. And ‘popularity’ is not a good measure either.” So do we do we laugh off the tongue-in-cheek K value as the joke Hall says he meant it to be, or do we take it seriously? Because as lighthearted as it may seem, it highlights a fair amount of issues currently circulating the science community; it forces an evaluation not only for how social media affects the perception of scientists by peers and public alike, but how we should focus on integrating science and social media. The spirit of science embraces the sharing of ideas and communal thinking, so naturally it is easy to see social media as the future of science communication and we need to ensure that this transition is done correctly.