Published On: Tue, Mar 6th, 2018

Scientists Now Using the ‘Kardashian Index’ to Monitor Social Media Activity

There are a number of indices and units of measure named after people. The Apgar Score, the test for a newborn infant’s health, is named after Dr. Apgar who developed the system. The “Garn” unit is a measure of travel sickness named after a Senator who was frequently ill during tests. And in this same spirit, the “Kardashian Index” has just been rolled out to measure the relationship between social media activity and actual impact in the scientific community.

Kim Kardashian goofy twitter photo

The History of the Metric

Geneticist Neil Hall found that there are scientists who have far more Twitter followers than their publication records and citations would suggest. He developed the “Kardashian Index” to rate these disproportionately popular (on social media) figures. He first wrote about the Kardashian Index for the journal Genome Biology. It wasn’t meant to be a scientific measure at first but merely commentary that he wrote more in jest than in the name of science.

The Source of the Name

The Kardashians successfully leveraged controversy into a reality show, fashion lines, beauty products and an empire. Once in the limelight, they’ve managed to stay in it, though they’ve also leveraged personal news like multiple simultaneous pregnancies in the family as reported in this article on consolidatetimes.com. They also were able to get traction leveraging mundane events, such as when the youngest of the clan “broke the internet” by sharing a rather simplistic ramen noodle recipe on social media. The same disproportionate attention on social media relative to one’s perceived accomplishments is found in other areas, leading to the Kardashian Index.

The Metric

The Kardashian Index is simply a comparison between the number of citations of a scientist’s work relative to how many Twitter followers they have.

The index was designed to point out the exceptions to the rule. Controversial Toronto University professor Dr. Jordan Peterson is one of the most cited research psychologists today, and he’s broadly followed on both Twitter and YouTube. As his best-selling book demonstrates, he has a large following as well as a large professional citation index. In this case, the Kardashian Index would be close to 1, because the social media following is proportional to one’s citation record.

To quote his paper, if any scientist has a Kardashian index greater than five, they need to stop Tweeting and resume writing papers for publication. In contrast, any scientist with a very high score is more famous for being famous, like a Kardashian, than their actual contributions to science.

Reception of the Metric by the Scientific Community

The paper by Mr. Hall led to a number of satirical papers about the metric. Another criticism of the paper was that citations themselves are not a measure of quality, so the number of citations shouldn’t be used as a measure of one’s academic quality. Others say the metric undervalues scientists and journalists trying to engage in outreach and/or educate the public.

The Kardashian Index is intended to give a measure of how famous someone is on social media relative to their scientific contributions. Intended more as a social commentary and joke, it evidently hit a nerve. But it also stirred the discussion on the difference between actual impact and fame in the scientific community.

Author: Carol Trehearn

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