More outreach, not less, please!
Is Engaging in Science Outreach Damaging to Scientists?

A few years ago, I started posting about science publicly on Google+. I did it in my spare time because as a scientist, it was obviously a topic I was interested in. I also found the public ignorance about science particularly depressing. This, coupled with a woeful misrepresentation of science on the part of many science journalists on popular media meant that even if the public cared enough to read about science, they would be ill-informed by sensationalised over-hyped articles. There was only one solution, as I saw it - the scientists themselves should engage directly with the public. This has always been my personal motto when it came to doing science outreach (http://goo.gl/Ts8oYf and http://goo.gl/W1XKHT). 

So it is with dismay that I read this 'joke' article on Genome Biology by Neil Hall (http://goo.gl/oX52dI). In it, he defines the K-index (Kardashian Index) as:

“a measure of discrepancy between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.”  A high K-index indicates that the scientist may have built their reputation on a shaky foundation, while a low K- index indicates that the scientist is not being given credit where credit is due.

An unfortunate consequence of the K-index is that it is damaging to other scientists who genuinely engage in science outreach on social media. Scientists are evaluated by their publication records. People who have a low K-index will likely be older and well-established. Someone who started publishing 30 years ago and just joined Twitter will have a very low K-index. On the other hand, early career researchers who haven't published a lot but engage in outreach can appear to have a high K-index. The author also advises people that "if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers". Never mind that only 1% of scientists regularly publish one paper a year (http://goo.gl/yvd1Yv). Do we really want the other 99% of scientists to stop writing about science on social media?

I understand that this paper was 'semi-serious'. I understand that there are certain science outreach 'personalities' on social media who regularly over-estimate their popularity and importance. But I can already imagine how this index can be used to patronise young researchers who engage in outreach. I can imagine the smirks from senior scientists at job interview panels and evaluation committees. 

This 'joke' article is only funny if you are a senior tenured professor with lots of papers and yet have a low follower count on social media. "Ha ha, let's laugh at those silly scientists doing social media outreach when they should be writing papers!" The K-index trivialises those of us who work hard to communicate science with the public. 

I don't earn anything from doing outreach. It doesn't benefit me professionally. I don't have better job prospects because I have an audience. I do it because as a scientist, I feel I have a duty to directly engage with the public. Doing outreach doesn't harm me either. I hate to think that someday, it might. I hate to think that I might be taken less seriously because I do this. I especially hate to think that other young researchers might be discouraged from engaging in outreach because of this. 

Thanks to +Tommy Leung for the discussion that inspired this post. 

Image: Twitter followers versus number of scientific citations for a sort-of-random sample of researcher tweeters. Individuals with a highly overinflated number of followers (when compared with the number predicted by the trendline) are highlighted by the area labeled Kardashians. (from: http://goo.gl/oX52dI)

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