Thursday, July 31st 2014
Genome Biology published a satirical piece by Neil Hall today, and since I’m American and he’s British I don’t find it funny. No wait, it’s that I’m female and he’s male. Or maybe that I’m junior and he’s senior. I’ve got it, it’s because he has a ton of publications (many times the number I have), and I have a ton of Twitter followers (many times the number he has). Meaning, my K-index knocks his out of the park.
Let me back up. You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations. He writes:
“Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.”
Hall selected a non-random sample of 40 scientists, only 14 of whom were women. He never explains the methods of how he chose these 40. Hall himself says he “had intended to collect more data but it took a long time and I therefore decided 40 would be enough to make a point. Please don’t take this as representative of my normal research rigor.” Why be rigorous and recruit equally when it’s just social science research, amirite?
In the discussion, Hall observes that the 14 female scientists he sampled tended to have a low K-index, meaning they were underappreciated for their work. He rather nonchalantly throws this bone out there to show he’s on the side of the ladies. Strangely, many ladies have not taken up the bone and its rather meager gristle, a sign, Janet Stemwedel once pointed out, that the joke-teller isn’t as aware of his in-group as he might think.
I feel the need to draw the reader’s attention, again, to the question of how to make jokes work. As Emily Finke pointed out in a conversation with me recently, this joke punches down. How is this punching down? Consider the community. The people with power tend to be the ones who:
- Are dubious of any time spent doing outreach, science communication, education, or social media.
- Are scientists in fields considered more “hard,” like engineering and the physical and (some of the) life sciences.
- Are older, white, and male.
- Have a lot of publications.
- Would have a K-index near or at zero.
That means that a joke intended to problematize how we quantify metrics in academic science should probably punch in that direction. Instead, Hall punches at people with less power, who tend to be:
- Committed to social media outreach.
- Are scientists in fields considered less “hard,” like (some of the) life and the social sciences.
- Younger, less white, and less male.
- Have fewer publications.
- Have a higher K-index than you.
So yes, he’s punching down, and that makes it not funny. There is no dark corner of academic metrics to expose when the people you’re mocking are the ones least well positioned to respond. I would never have gotten that paper published – in a journal with an impact factor of 10.5, no less – because I am one of ones whose profile is built on “shaky foundations.”
All I can do… is blog about it.