Kardashian Index: the academics famous just for being famous

Ranking reveals the scholars whose social media profile exceeds their academic credentials

August 14, 2014

Source: Elizabeth Wu/Shutterstock.com

Do you know what your Kardashian index score is? If not, you should work it out now, according to a paper by Neil Hall, professor of functional and comparative genomics at the University of Liverpool.

Professor Hall’s measure takes its name from Kim Kardashian, the US television personality who, he says, is famous simply for being famous rather than for any discernible talent or skill.

“You could say that her celebrity buys success, which buys greater celebrity,” he writes in the paper, titled “The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists” and published in the journal Genome Biology. “Her fame has meant that comments by Kardashian on issues such as Syria have been widely reported in the press. Sadly, her interjection on the crisis has not yet led to a let-up in the violence,” Professor Hall writes.

He believes that there are parallels to be drawn in academia and, specifically, science. “I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned),” he writes. “We are all aware that certain people are seemingly invited as keynote speakers, not because of their contributions to the published literature but because of who they are.

“In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or Twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety.”

To explore his theory, Professor Hall plotted the number of Twitter followers a scientist had against the number of scientific citations they had received to calculate their Kardashian index score. Those individuals with a highly over-inflated number of followers (compared with the number that would be expected) are the Kardashians.

“Social media make it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others,” he says. “I propose that all scientists calculate their own K-index on an annual basis and include it in their Twitter profile.”

Not only will this help others decide how much weight they should give to these scholars’ tweets, he writes, but it might also incentivise those who are high up the K-index to “get off Twitter and write those papers”.

“Interestingly, in my analysis, very few women (only one in fact) had a highly inflated Twitter following, while most (11/14) had fewer followers than would be expected,” he adds. “Hence, most Kardashians are men!”

The study “does not prove that we, as a community, are continuing to ignore women”, or that women are “less likely to engage in self-promotion”, he says, but it is consistent with either or both of these scenarios.

“I don’t blame Kim Kardashian or her science equivalents for exploiting their fame; who wouldn’t?” Professor Hall concludes. “However, I think it’s time that we develop a metric that will clearly indicate if a scientist has an overblown public profile so that we can adjust our expectations of them accordingly.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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