Monday, September 29, 2014

Can Twitter be a tool for science?

By Ann Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

Do you tweet about science?  Would you consider using twitter to find out about the latest science?  

Science magazine has recently published an article(1) about the K-index, based on an article written by biologist Neil Hall at Liverpool University in the UK (The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists, Genome Biology, 2014 (2)).  The K-index, named after Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, attempts to compare a scientist’s fame by ranking them according to the number of twitter followers they have, normalized by the amount of citations their scientific publications have received. 

I don’t know how I feel about this.

I think this is because I’ve always seen social media as separate to the science that I do.  Sure, it has been the first to inform me of a celebrity’s arrest/death/misdemeanor, and that quiz to find out which city I should really be living in, but I’ve never used it to follow scientists in my field or to find out how a conference I wasn’t able to attend is going…. I think this could be a mistake, but am I happy with the idea of a K-index ranking how well I’m using social media for my career? Probably not.

In the original article, Hall suggests that those with many twitter followers should be back in the lab publishing more papers and has constructed the K-index such that those with a high value have a lot of followers but [relatively] few citations.  I think this misses the important role that social media is likely to play in the future, especially when it comes to outreach and science communication.  

When you ignore the K-index and look at the scientists with the most twitter followers (The top 50 science stars of twitter), this is what you find:

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Brian Cox
Richard Dawkins

No great surprises, all known for their dedication to science communication, and the use of twitter and other social media tools only seems to be helping them.  I wouldn’t call their twitter fame unwarranted and I wonder what the point of the original article by Hall was?  As he has not provided his K-index for any particular scientist we can only speculate on who he thinks is a “Kardashian of science” with an “overblown public profile”.   

He does have a valid point, which is that often, it is the number of followers a person has rather than any insight or expertise they possess that can dictate how far reaching their influence is, or who can “shout loudest”; but doesn’t this mean we want more scientists on twitter, not less?  

The idea that taking the time to engage in the communication of science is somehow reprehensible or that focusing your career in this way makes you less of a scientist is deeply troubling.  With how few of our politicians and business leaders have the background in science needed to understand a research paper, scientists who are willing to act as advisors and go-betweens are invaluable and this shouldn’t just stop with those in power.  The communication of science to the whole population is also important; social media is likely to be a key tool in reaching as many people as possible.

So instead of pointing to the Kardashians of science and calling them outliers who need to spend more time on “real work”, it should be acknowledged that the future of science communication is vital and its superstars will have more twitter followers than you.

One last point to finish on is that both Hall’s K-index and Science’s “top 50 stars on twitter” found that females were underrepresented (as I assume other minorities are, although this was not addressed in either article).  This is hardly surprising, given that women and minorities are underrepresented both online and in science in general, but that this is cause for concern is hopefully something we can all agree on.  Making science welcoming for all is something I want to be a part of and in order to reach this goal we should be free to use every tool we can.  Social media can reach a lot of people, let’s use if for science. 

1.       1.  Jia You (2014). Who are the science stars of Twitter?, Science, 345:6203 
2.       2.  Neil Hall (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientist, Genome Biology, 15:424