Yet another science metric – the Kardashian Index

By Siouxsie Wiles 08/08/2014 5

Twitter exploded last week after Neil Hall, a professor at the University of Liverpool who studies the genomes of the parasites that cause malaria and sleeping sickness, published a (supposedly satirical) paper in the journal Genome Biology. Rather than read his paper, I recommend you read the annotated version. But first, here’s the 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.

Ummm, communicating through social media is “gaining too high a value”?? That’s hilarious. In my experience, being active on social media is given no value by the majority of the establishment (ie silverbacks like Prof Hall). And as to citation indices being a “key metric of scientific value”? Of value to other academics maybe. But science is valuable outside of academia too, and citation indices will rarely capture that.

To calculate a scientist’s Kardashian Index (K-index), Prof Hall says we first need to calculate the number of twitter followers a particular scientist should have, using the following equation:

F= 43.3C^0.32 (Eq 1)

Where F is the number of twitter followers and C is the number of citations.

The K-index is then calculated using a second equation

K−index = F(a)/F(c) (Eq 2)

Where F(a) is the actual number of twitter followers the researcher has and F(c) is the number they “should” have given their citations.

As Prof Hall explains:

“…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’…”

Prof Hall did a “preliminary proof-of-concept study” using a “randomish selection of 40 scientists”. You can see how they scored in Figure 1 of his paper:


Prof Hall goes on to conclude:

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.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, our very own Nanogirl worked out her K-Index and scored 35, the same as Prof Brian Cox. Both clearly need to get back to writing their papers.

There are so many things wrong with Prof Hall’s piece it’s hard to know where to begin. As I say, check out the great annotated version of his paper by Red Ink which points out some of them. Dr Kate Clancy has also written a nice post explaining why this bit of fun isn’t actually funny and Dr Keith Bradnam has turned it on its head suggesting the Tesla index as a measure of scientific isolation.

What really makes my blood boil about Prof Hall’s new index is that he named it after Kim Kardashian, who according to Wikipedia, is a reality TV star famous for being the daughter of OJ Simpson’s defense lawyer, a friend of wealthy socialite Paris Hilton and star of a sex tape. She is now a successful business women with several clotheslines and fragrances to her name and an estimated fortune of $45 million.

Ms Kardashian’s most recent venture is a smartphone game in which players have to build a career in Hollywood, accumulating wealth and fans. You have to give it to her. That lady has a sense of humour. Ms Kardashian is famous for being famous and not ashamed in the slightest. But she is hardly alone. In fact, she appears to be just one of a new breed of such celebrities.

That Prof Hall chose to name his index after a vacuous woman is a wonderful example of everyday sexism. Make no mistake, while Prof Hall’s piece is supposedly satirical, it is a snide swipe at those with a passion for communicating science using a derogatory association with a woman to do so. And he got his paper published in a peer reviewed journal where it will no doubt provide ammunition to those who already belittle the work science communicators do, all with a citation to back their bigotry.

The light at the end of the tunnel though was the #AlternativeScienceMetrics hashtag that was spawned on twitter, storified here by @mcdawg. Gems like these:

From @Protohedgehog: The Sean Bean index, measuring the number of times you write a great paper, only to have it killed by peer review

From @IanMulvany: the george Lucas index, how often a later paper totally invalidates earlier work that you did

From @OSIRISREx: The Viral Factor: how many times your research is misinterpreted into a factoid on a pop social media page

From @quicklyround: The Ulysses Factor – papers cited by everybody but that nobody has actually read to the end

From @LouWoodley: The Lindt Factor – the number of bars of chocolate needed to make the “minor revisions” requested

From @Koalha: Sacrificial efficiency: number of accepted papers / burnt out grad student

Jason McDermott discusses the pros and cons of some of them on his blog. Which would get your vote?!

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