We the Kardashians are Democratizing Science

I had a good laugh this weekend at a paper published to Genome Biology. Neil Hall, the author of the paper and well-established Liverpool biologist, writes that in the brave new era of social media, 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.” Wow, what a punchline! According to Neil, we’re in danger of forgetting that tweets and blogposts are, according to him, the worthless gossip of academia. After all, who reads Nature and Science these days?? I know so many colleagues getting big grants and tenure track jobs just over their tweets! Never mind that Neil himself has about 11 papers published in Nature journals – or perhaps we are left to sympathize with the poor, untweeted author? Outside of bitter sarcasm, the article is a fun bit of satire, and I’d like to think charitably that it was aimed not only at ‘altmetrics’, but at the metric enterprise in general. Still, I agree totally with Kathryn Clancy that the joke fails insofar as it seems to be ‘punching down’ at those of us with less established CVs than Neil, who take to social media in order to network and advance our own fledgling research profiles. I think it also belies a critical misapprehension of how social media fits into the research ecosystem common among established scholars. This sentiment is expressed rather precisely by Neil when discussing his Kardashian index:

The Kardashian Index
The Kardashian Index

“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.”

So there you have it. Twitter equals shallow popularity. Never mind the endless possibilities of having seamless networked interactions with peers from around the world. Never mind sharing the latest results, discussing them, and branching these interactions into blog posts that themselves evolve into papers. Forget entirely that without this infosphere of interaction, we’d be left totally at the whims of Impact Factor to find interesting papers among the thousands published daily. What it’s really all about is building a “seemingly impressive persona” by “shouting louder than others”. What then does constitute effective scientific output, Neil? The answer it seems – more high impact papers:

“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.”

Well then, I’m glad we covered that. I’m sure there were many scientists or scholars out there who amid the endless cycle of insane job pressure, publish or perish horse-racing, and blood feuding for grants thought, ‘gee I’d better just stop this publishing thing entirely and tweet instead’. And likewise, I’m sure every young scientist looks at ‘Kardashians’ and thinks, ‘hey I’d better suspend all critical thinking, forget all my training, and believe everything this person says’. I hope you can feel me rolling my eyes.  Seriously though – this represents a fundamental and common misunderstanding of the point of all this faffing about on the internet. Followers, impact, and notoriety are all poorly understood side-effects of this process; they are neither the means nor goal. And never mind those less concrete (and misleading) contributions like freely shared code, data, or thoughts – the point here is to blather and gossip!

While a (sorta) funny joke, it is this point that is done the most disservice by Neil’s article. We (the Kardashians) are democratizing science. We are filtering the literally unending deluge of papers to try and find the most outrageous, the most interesting, and the most forgotten, so that they can see the light of day beyond wherever they were published and forgotten. We seek these papers to generate discussion and to garner attention where it is needed most. We are the academy’s newest, first line of defense, contextualizing results when the media runs wild with them. We tweet often because there is a lot to tweet, and we gain followers because the things we tweet are interesting. And we do all of this without the comfort of a lofty CV or high impact track record, with little concrete assurance that it will even benefit us, all while still trying to produce the standard signs of success. And it may not seem like it now – but in time it will be clear that what we do is just as much a part of the scientific process as those lofty Nature papers. Are we perfect? No. Do we sometimes fall victim to sensationalism or crowd mentality? Of course – we are only fallible human beings, trying to find and create utility within a new frontier. We may not be the filter science deserves – but we are the one it needs. Wear your Kardshian index with pride.

8 thoughts on “We the Kardashians are Democratizing Science

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