Is Engaging in Science Outreach Damaging to Scientists?

K-Index

Twitter followers versus number of scientific citations for a sort-of-random sample of researcher tweeters. Individuals with a highly overinflated number of followers (when compared with the number predicted by the trendline) are highlighted by the area labeled Kardashians

A few years ago, I started posting about science publicly on Google+. I did it in my spare time because as a scientist, it was obviously a topic I was interested in. I also found the public ignorance about science particularly depressing. This, coupled with a woeful misrepresentation of science on the part of many science journalists on popular media meant that even if the public cared enough to read about science, they would be ill-informed by sensationalised over-hyped articles. There was only one solution, as I saw it – the scientists themselves should engage directly with the public. This has always been my personal motto when it came to doing science outreach.

So it is with dismay that I read this ‘joke’ article in Genome Biology by Neil Hall. In it, he defines the K-index (Kardashian Index) as:

“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.”

A high K-index indicates that the scientist may have built their reputation on a shaky foundation, while a low K- index indicates that the scientist is not being given credit where credit is due.

An unfortunate consequence of the K-index is that it is damaging to other scientists who genuinely engage in science outreach on social media. Scientists are evaluated by their publication records. People who have a low K-index will likely be older and well-established. Someone who started publishing 30 years ago and just joined Twitter will have a very low K-index. On the other hand, early career researchers who haven’t published a lot but engage in outreach can appear to have a high K-index. The author also advises people that “if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers”. Never mind that only 1% of scientists regularly publish one paper a year. Do we really want the other 99% of scientists to stop writing about science on social media?

I understand that this paper was ‘semi-serious’. I understand that there are certain science outreach ‘personalities’ on social media who regularly over-estimate their popularity and importance. But I can already imagine how this index can be used to patronise young researchers who engage in outreach. I can imagine the smirks from senior scientists at job interview panels and evaluation committees.

This ‘joke’ article is only funny if you are a senior tenured professor with lots of papers and yet have a low follower count on social media. “Ha ha, let’s laugh at those silly scientists doing social media outreach when they should be writing papers!” The K-index trivialises those of us who work hard to communicate science with the public.

I don’t earn anything from doing outreach. It doesn’t benefit me professionally. I don’t have better job prospects because I have an audience. I do it because as a scientist, I feel I have a duty to directly engage with the public. Doing outreach doesn’t harm me either. I hate to think that someday, it might. I hate to think that I might be taken less seriously because I do this. I especially hate to think that other young researchers might be discouraged from engaging in outreach because of this.

Thanks to Tommy Leung for the discussion that inspired this post.

Follow the discussion on Google+

Image: Twitter followers versus number of scientific citations for a sort-of-random sample of researcher tweeters. Individuals with a highly overinflated number of followers (when compared with the number predicted by the trendline) are highlighted by the area labeled Kardashians.

Here is a great writeup on the gender/morality aspect of using the word Kardashian, by Zuleyka Zevallos

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