The Future of Science is... Twitter?

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in our new blog series, exploring the intersection of science, society, and beyond. Follow us on Twitter (@Benchling) to catch future blog posts and product announcements!

When Kim Kardashian appeared in last month’s issue of Genome Biology, it should have been no surprise that she’d cause a stir. After all, the whole point of Neil Hall’s article was to incite controversy. His target? The flawed-but-still-widely-used impact factor. Used as an indication for how prestigious a particular journal is, this index is calculated annually, from the number of citations each journal receives. However, this isn't necessarily a reliable measure, given that editorial decisions can artificially boost a journal's impact factor.

In the same screenshot, you can read Neil Hall's critique of metrics, while chuckling at the irony of Genome Biology's proud display of its impact factor. (For reference, Nature's 2013 Impact Factor is 42.4).

In his satirical piece, Hall pokes fun at metrics by making one of his own, the Kardashian Index (k-index).1 To determine whether a scientist is “famous just for being famous,” you need only to compare their number of Twitter followers to number of paper citations. His tongue-in-cheek conclusion is then, that some “Science Kardashians” have an undeservedly high social profile, with far more Twitter followers than they deserve, given their publication record.

Needless to say, while Hall’s overall criticism of metrics may echo what many of us feel about the impact factor, his message was overshadowed by the perceived attack on Twitter’s value as a science communication tool.

The Internet Unleashes Its Wrath

With the number of brilliant, scathing responses to Neil Hall’s article, it seems unnecessary to re-hash the “K-index”—which one blogger hilariously dubs, “a measure of how much hate one can generate on Twitter with a single paper.”2 Although, perhaps the most ironic, fitting response was tweeted by @NeilHall_UK himself:

Neil Hall might have an impressive number of academic publications, but he’s not great at constructing intelligible tweets.

There is value (not to mention skill) in communicating science via any platform, whether it’s to promote discussion across the scientific community or engage with the public. Even in the context of a joke, to belittle this as a “form of communication [that] is gaining too high a value”1 is demeaning and damaging to public outreach efforts—a critical, but already under-appreciated crusade.

This Isn’t A New Controversy

Far from unfounded, the “Ivory Tower” stereotype is firmly grounded in a pervasive tradition of eschewing communication with the public. Centuries before Twitter, Sir Isaac Newton once admitted, “to avoid being baited by little smatterers in Mathematicks… he designedly made his Principia abstruse.”3 Newton may be one of the greatest scientists of all time, but his attitude towards the public (i.e. little smatterers) could have been a tad less disdainful.

Even today, scholars continue to struggle with this issue. Although public outreach is now recognized as a necessary and valiant endeavor, the academic culture itself still subtly discourages involvement in these activities. In fact, it’s quietly understood that “no one ever gets tenure for doing service.”4

For a young professor juggling a gazillion responsibilities, adopting the “publish or perish” mentality is still the most efficient path to tenure, and outreach efforts can easily get swept aside. In some cases, participating in outreach (or rather, too much outreach) can actually be a detriment; in a completely non-ironic Guide to Getting Tenure, the author recalls an actual quote:5

“I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.”

Similarly, the author advises—quite sincerely—against writing books that popularize science. (Because obviously, if you’re educating the public and doing a service to your community, you’re not spending that time doing research.)

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

No matter the medium, the popularization of science hasn’t had a smooth reception in academia. Despite having reached a billion video views in 2012,6 the wildly successful TED talks have still been criticized; noted essayist (and professor) Nassim Taleb referred to TED talks as “a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers."7 Even so, while it may be unsurprising that a majority (79%) of TED speakers are non-academics, it’s the videos by academics that receive the most comments.6 The public may value these outreach efforts, but the academic community itself doesn’t place sufficient value on these kind of activities.

Twitter Gets The Last Laugh

Regardless, social media has already become an immoveable fixture of our social landscape, and is slowly becoming so, even in academic communities. While a recent Nature survey reveals that less than 15% of scientists & engineers use Twitter regularly,8 other analyses demonstrate that this number has been steadily increasing over the past few years.9 Amongst faculty Twitter users, a significant portion of their tweets (30%) are “scholarly”,9 for the reported reasons of following scientific discussions, discovering peers/papers, and commenting on research.8 Growth in social media for scientists is so promising, that even Bill Gates invested a staggering $35 million in ResearchGate, a social networking site for researchers.8

While some scientists may still consider Twitter to be frivolous, many academic journals are beginning to take it seriously. PLoS ONE already displays the number of Twitter and Facebook mentions each article receives, just as Nature provides an “altmetric score” to describe the amount of online attention that each paper gets from both social media and mainstream news outlets.

This “altmetrics” movement comes close on the heels of growing concern about the current gold standard—the impact factor. Since 1990, the correlation between impact factor and paper citations has been diminishing; the highest cited papers aren’t necessarily coming from high impact factor journals.10 And since citations often take years to accrue, people are turning to social media mentions, as a more real-time assessment of “impact”.11

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

Of course, a Twitter-based metric is still incomplete, with its own host of problems. Nevertheless, even if we can't find the perfect measure of "impact," that doesn't mean we should de-value attempts to make impact. Namely, there's nothing wrong with communicating data, and Twitter is just an effective tool to do so with. So ignore the haters, and tweet on!

To explore this topic further, look out for our upcoming blog post on how social media (and more broadly, the internet) is shaping the open science movement!

REFERENCES:

1. Hall, Neil. (2014) The Kardashian Index: A Measure of Discrepant Social Media Profiles for Scientists. Genome Biology 15:424.
2. “Neil Hall to marry Kim Kardashian in summer ceremony.” The Science Web. Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://thescienceweb.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/neil-hall-to-marry-kim-kardashian-in-summer-ceremony/
3. Stokes, Mitch. Isaac Newton. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc, 2010. Print.
4. “The good, the meh, and the ugly of pre-tenure service.” Tenure She Wrote. Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-good-the-meh-and-the-ugly-of-pre-tenure-service/
5. Carroll, Sean. “How to get tenure at a major research university.” Discover Magazine. Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/03/30/how-to-get-tenure-at-a-major-research-university/#.VAN6z2RdVT5
6. Sugimoto CR, Thelwall M, Larivière V, Tsou A, Mongeon P, Macaluso B. (2013) Scientists popularizing science: characteristics and impact of TED talk presenters. PLoS One 8(4):e62403.
7. Taleb, Nassim. Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.
8. Van Noorden, Richard. “Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network.” Nature: News and Comment. Retrieved 13 August 2014 from http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711?WT.mcid=TWTNatureNews
9. Priem J, Costello K, and Dzuba T. “Prevalence and use of Twitter among scholars.” Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://figshare.com/articles/PrevalenceanduseofTwitteramongscholars/104629
10. Lozano GA et al. (2012) The weakening relationship between the impact factor and papers’ citations in the digital age. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63(11):2140-2145.
11. Thelwall M et al. (2013) Do Altmetrics Work? Twitter and Ten Other Social Web Services. PLoS ONE 8(5):e64841.