Introducing the “K Index”

The Kardashian Index reflects how a scientist’s social media presence stacks up against her citation record.

Jul 30, 2014
Tracy Vence

FLICKR, ANDREAS ELDHWhich matter more, citations or retweets? To address this, genomicist Neil Hall from the University of Liverpool in the U.K. has proposed what he calls the Kardashian Index (K Index), 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.” Hall described the so-called K Index in Genome Biology today (July 30).

“Consider Kim Kardashian,” Hall wrote in his paper; “she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics or the arts . . . she is one of the most followed people on Twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google.”

(If at this point, dear reader, you are scratching your head wondering who Kardashian is, you’re not alone. She is a reality TV star with millions of fans and online followers. As Hall put it, “If Kim Kardashian commented on the value of the ENCODE project, her tweet would get more retweets and favorites than the rest of the scientific community combined.”)

To Hall’s mind, Kardashian is celebrated simply for being famous. And he suggested that the same phenomenon might apply within the scientific community.

“I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community,” he wrote in his paper. “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).”

The K Index is a calculation of the number of Twitter followers a scientists has divided by the number of followers she’d be expected to have based on her citation record.

However, not all scientists agree that the K Index is accurate. “I think we’re coming dangerously close to making judgements about quality, and what we’re actually measuring is citations,” Mick Watson from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute wrote at his blog—“they’re not the same thing!”

One thing that’s likely to hold true, however, is that Twitter discussions about Hall’s paper will bolster his own K Index: “A few tweets linking me with the word ‘Kardashian’ should put my K-index through the roof,” he wrote.