The K-Index: Gender Morality and Social Media Use by Scientists

A new, already highly controversial, article by Professor of Chemistry, Neil Hall, proposes a “satiric” measure that maps the popularity of scientists on Twitter versus their impact factor (the number of publications in prestigious academic journals). He calls this the “K-Index,” named after a woman celebrity, Kim Kardashian. Why Kardashian? This index is meant to show that social media is as shallow as Hall deems this woman celebrity. Published in the renowned peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology, and unsurprisingly given his premise, Hall finds that scientists with a high impact factor score have a low value on the K-Index. This is mean to be a good thing, according to Hall, who sees scientific communication as being too important to be left to social media.

My post is inspired by Dr Buddhini Samarasinge who critiqued Hall’s conclusions. She discusses how and why scientists use social media, as well as age dynamics. Scientists who have a high publication record have had longer careers, established under a different, and better funded system. They have published more by virtue of the longevity of their careers and the opportunities that come with tenure (long-term and secure academic employment). They are often older and, as I will show, more reticent to use social media. The fact that they have a low K-factor should be a surprise to no one. Early career academics are more likely to be using social media because it is part of their everyday lives. They do not neglect publishing in peer reviewed journals; they do both, but, being more likely to still be studying, or being employed in the early stages, they will not have racked up as many publications. Buddhini argues that scientific publishing and social media do not have to be discreet activities. One does not invalidate the other. Instead they are complimentary to the public communication of science.

It is clear that Hall’s K-Index attempts to demean the outreach work of scientists by pitting academic publishing against social media. I want to focus on the hidden narrative of gender and science morality in Hall’s article.

Science should never be an old boy's club. Diversity matters
Science should never be an old boy’s club. Diversity matters. Photo adapted from Flickr

K-Index and Women’s Sexuality

Buddhini makes a strong case for why social media increases public engagement with science. Communicating science on social media means throwing away the jargon and making science both interesting and educational for lay audiences.

And so it’s interesting that Hall, a male scientist, made a point to begin his article with two examples of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who were ignored by scientific institutions in their day: palaeontologist Mary Anning (“I expect you have never heard of her,” says Hall) and mathematician/computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace. He writes: “It may be no coincidence that all of these overlooked heroes were women.” Interesting too that he does not name contemporary women scientists nor are they from his own field of genomics. Hall then sets up the “K-Index.”

The K-Index by Neil Hall. Via Genome Biology
The K-Index by Neil Hall. Via Genome Biology

Hall manages to mention Kardashian’s sex tape, and derides her position as a business woman. In the space of two paragraphs, he has managed to play into the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, which is a social science concept used to examine the rigid stereotypes in which dominant culture places women. It’s a no win typology. Women are either saints or sinners when judged against sexist ideals.

Hall laments that revered women in science were paid no attention in their day. As mentioned, he names two women (woah, he must really be into this equality stuff!). It is no accident that Hall sets up these two saintly women scientists in contrast to Kardashian. What’s the point of comparing two historical women of science to a woman from present-day popular culture? It’s nothing more than old-fashioned sexism dressed up as pompous science posturing. And who loses in this comparison? Everyone.

In Hall’s article, scientists using social media are tarnished with the same brush as Kardashian, who must be a worthless person because she dares to make a living off her fame in an industry that is not science. There is an elitism here that is not benign. Scientists and reality TV stars serve different functions and are not in competition for attention. The public, believe it or not, are allowed to like different things, and some people even enjoy popular culture as well as science. To set up a false dichotomy saying otherwise is disingenuous. What Hall is actually saying is that some scientific practices are not worthy of the public’s time and that scientists who use social media must solely be motivated by fame-seeking. Actual scientific research does not bear out this poorly conceived hypothesis (which Hall has not actually tested).

Who else loses in the Madonna/whore Kardashian/Lovelace comparison? The public, that silly horde who sometimes follow scientists who don’t have a high publication rate in high-impact science journals. Social media used for public engagement is therefore by comparison equal parts frivolity, not worthy of attention and the intellectual equivalent of promiscuity. Because having sex and fame are two Very Bad Things, right? Apparently so if you’re a scientist who came up with a pseudo-scientific measure to demean public outreach for “just a bit of fun.”

Setting aside Hall’s attempt at slut-shaming, and regardless of whatever anyone thinks of Kardashian’s fame – Hall’s article is problematic on many levels, even if it is, wink, just for fun.

White Male Privilege in Academia

"Today's Angry White Men look backward, nostalgically at the world they have lost." - Michael Kimmel, sociologist
“Today’s Angry White Men look backward, nostalgically at the world they have lost.” – Michael Kimmel, sociologist

Hall says he “tried to pick a randomish selection of 40 scientists” who are big in genome research. He’s already in violation of research ethics (it’s not that hard to try to work out which scientists may have been included in the sample). He seems to be motivated to ridicule a specific sub-set of scientists whom he clearly thinks are not deserving of public engagement.

His “analysis” is presented as a tongue-in-cheek with only three references including Wikipedia and two news sites. But it’s not just a bit of fun, is it? It’s moralising about what science should be and how scientists should spend their time. The author concludes:

“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.”

Hall then tries to make a “serious” point about gender. In his non-random sample of scientists, only one woman had a high Twitter following. Eleven out of 14 women he included in his sample had low Twitter counts. “Hence, most Kardashians are men!” proclaims Hall. Plot twist! As if only women are vapid creatures whom we might expect to be debasing themselves in the superficial world of social media. He then argues his “study” (his quote marks) does not prove women’s low standing in science.

Nice try. But here are some actual science facts that speak to the blind-spots of White male privilege that Hall has indulged in. On the one hand, we have the reality of social media use. Young people, women and urban dwellers use social media more often than older men. Young educated people of colour also use social media at a relatively higher rate. Twitter users are generally highly educated and predominantly use social media for news information.

On the other hand, consider women’s place in science publishing. Women are less likely to be published in prestigious journals and they are less likely to be sole authors, but they also collaborate more. Women’s research is less likely to be funded; women are less likely to be hired for science jobs; I could go on. The correlation between male scientists having a higher social media following simply conforms to other patterns in science studies showing that women’s contribution in STEM is devalued. Research suggests that more women academics are blogging and using social media, but this work is not deemed as prestigious as other forms of academic work like publishing in high impact journals. Hall is buying into this idea, which actually perpetuates the de-valuing of women’s scientific achievements.

Science & Social Media

Social Media: Bringing Science to new places.
Social Media: Bringing Science to new places.

As Buddhini notes, the vast majority of people who write about science on social media do so with zero professional benefit. In fact, we do it in our personal time. And in the grand scheme of things, we are the minority. Studies have shown that academics remain overwhelmingly cautious about using social media. Academics fear privacy, abuse and that their work may be de-valued if they use social media, but they also see that it’s valuable to connect with other researchers through social media.

Despite Hall’s rudimentary musings, research finds that highly cited researchers do use social media, albeit sparingly. It makes sense that if they do not use social media consistently, they are unlikely to build a strong following. Hall has missed a major point about the function of social media, and the fact that the word “social” is there for a reason: you don’t get awarded followers by virtue of who you are or your publication rate. The scientists who build up strong following have worked hard to engage the public.

Since students are high adopters of social media, it makes sense that scientists use this as a medium of public engagement and education. One study shows that faculty members want to use social media more but they have concerns about privacy and they lack confidence/knowledge in technology.

Hall’s K-value plays into all the academic fears of new technologies without adding anything new, save for some sexism thrown in for good measure. He presents himself as a vanguard of pure scientific pursuit, evoking the name of women in STEM without putting his tirade in context to the real barriers women and younger academics face. He does nothing to address the benefits of social media, such as offering women, minorities and early career researchers a place to find a support network and an audience for their research. He fails to neglect to mention that many scientists are using social media to talk about science that mainstream popular media ignores.

Social media, it seems to Hall, just gets it all wrong. It lauds the wrong kind of scientists. So Hall has helpfully included his Twitter handle in his article, in case you want to follow a scientist he deems worthy of your attention.

Moving Forward

This blog post was first published on Google+, where you can also read a spirited discussion with other scientists from many fields. There, I noted that the full responsibility of Hall’s sexist and elitist “satire” does not fall solely on Hall, but also on the editors and publishers who allowed this piece through their hallowed peer-reviewed process. Someone suggested the editors should be fired. I answered the following: I agree there should be consequences and a sincere public statement of apology based on reflection. At the moment all we have to go on is silence from the publishers and denials of “I didn’t mean it like that” (Hall insists it was satire and therefore not meant to do harm). I don’t think anyone should be fired over this particular incident because we need a culture of reform in STEM. What would be useful is if everyone involved commits to in-depth gender and diversity training for starters. Not a one-day “sexual harassment is bad” performance, but an intensive and ongoing discussion of case studies on the nuances of inequality in STEM, as informed by social science.

Sexism came through in this example, but so did age discrimination. Hall’s article chastises the social media practices of early career researchers who lack power and who bear the brunt of funding and political pressures in STEM (insecure employment, lack of employment, having their interests not be supported by higher education, including outreach).

As such, it would also be helpful if the journal invited rebuttals on how and why social media strengthens STEM publishing and science communication, and what we can do to make this even better (recognition of this as science work for example). A statement on where the Journal stands on social media would also be useful. Similarly, encouraging gender discussion within the journal is also paramount. The editors would be wise to revise their publishing policies and to put together explicit guidelines to authors about the types of damaging and exclusionary attitudes that will not be tolerated, as well as clearly illustrating to the public how the publisher and editors will deal with similar issues in future. My colleagues and I outlined similar issues and recommendations on STEM Women.

As we’ve discussed on STEM Women, this sort of gender exclusion keeps happening in science publishing because not enough people in power are taking diversity seriously.


Note: This blog post was first published on Google+ on the 31st of July

Learn More

Read more constructive discussion on the K-Index

  • Buddhini’s wonderful analysis about why Hall misses the point about social media and the hard work outreach involves. Be sure to read the intelligent dialogue in the comments.
  • Anthropologist Kate Clancy shows how Hall’s article is both sexist and demeaning to the social sciences.
  • Astrophysicist Katie Mack leads an excellent cross-disciplinary discussion on Hall’s academic elitism on Twitter. I especially liked the response on applied science by Astrophysicist, Catherine Q (below).
  • Red Ink uses wit to actually satirise Hall’s sexist logic.


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