Thursday, July 31st 2014

Jokes That Don’t Work

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.


  1. EMoon said:

    I think Hall’s attempt falls under the heading of “The failure mode of clever is asshole” (from a blog post by John Scalzi,

    He wanted to show how clever he was, and instead showed…yeah. Punching down is not funny. It never was funny; it never was a sign of superior moral/ethical/whatever standing.And excusing himself for not being as rigorous with his K-index as he is elsewhere…makes me think he’s probably not all that rigorous elsewhere. It’s an excuse like “I don’t usually run red lights so running this one shouldn’t count against me. And besides, I’m more important than those other people who run red lights.”

  2. Amy Lossie said:

    Once again, your insightful post explains exactly what has been bothering me about these types of jokes for several years. Thank you for spelling it out clearly and succinctly. I’m going to send this post to many who are battling sexism (and other isms) in academia. It makes the point crystal clear. It reminds me of the bullseye that went around for terminally ill patients, where you can complain out, but never in. Same concept. Simple and accurate.

  3. Maria Muto-Porter said:

    This sort of thing is so irritating, because I see it everywhere, not just in the sciences, but there is one comfort. These tired old white guys are finding their worlds have been shaken from the complacency they’re used to and it leads to them acting up, but they are old and eventually they will be gone and you and others who don’t fit that profile will change things. I look forward to that, even if I’m not around to see it. Thanks for speaking out – it’s appreciated.

  4. dsks said:

    “While social media is a valuable tool for outreach and the sharing of ideas, there is a danger that this form of communication is gaining too high a value and that we are losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices. ”

    What the hell is he talking about? The academic establishment holds little or no value in social media, blogging etc. If anything, the compelling argument is that they undervalue these outlets, particularly at a time when the antiscience fringe is so energetic. so the entire basis of this exercise is seriously questionable. It looks to be little more than a curmudgeonly and cynical hatchet job on Teh Science Yoof Of Today from a bloke who feels intimidated by social media.

  5. Andrew Derrington said:

    As someone who is old, white, male and has very few twitter followers can I say that the paper didn’t seem remotely funny. It looked like a mistaken attempt to discourage outreach and should be ignored.

  6. Titus Brown said:

    Thank you for so succinctly explaining why I found Neil’s article so objectionable! I completely agree with you and am glad you said it.

  7. Robert Davey said:

    I can completely understand the frustration around this article, but this is exactly what Neil was trying to do. Provoke and goad people into humour, anger, resentment… This is exactly satire’s trademark.

    Phrases like “losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices.” are clearly satire, given the fact that the rest of the article is supposedly purporting another metric of scientific value, which of course it is nothing of the sort.

    “The academic establishment holds little or no value in social media, blogging etc” – precisely. Hence the name of the index itself. The etymology is based on an empty premise, a vapid symbol of celebrity over substance. The K-index, H-index, IF, etc are all ripe for ridicule because of their attempt to place arbitrary deterministic value on something far more valuable – the very human component of research.

    If you take the underlying satire out of the equation, agreed – it’s a poor article, badly placed, maybe even offensive (although offense is clearly subjective). The real article nestles within the gaps – indices are pointless, devaluing, counter-productive and equally offensive.

    I’m completely ingrained in the desire to promote outreach, training and a fair playing field for everyone to do science. Supporting any misplaced number that attempts to remove the human component from our worth is the thing we should be getting angry about.

  8. Dr. Kate Clancy said:

    Robert — thanks so much for sharing your thinking. Unfortunately for it to be satire, it still needs to punch up. Hall punches science communicators and junior scientists right in the gut with this piece. This is what makes it not qualify as satire. People interrogating his terrible piece have done the true satirizing of the problem of useless metrics far, far better than he did in his piece. But a Twitter hashtag doesn’t matter nearly as much for tenure as being on the editorial board of a journal like Genome Biology, and managing to get a humor piece like that published in said journal, now does it?

  9. How We the Kardashians are Democratizing Science | Neuroconscience said:

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  10. We the Kardashians are Democratizing Science | Neuroconscience said:

    […] it was aimed not only at ‘altmetrics’, but at the metric enterprise in general. Still, I agree totally with Kathryn Clancy that the joke fails insofar as it seems to be ‘punching down’ at those of us with less […]

  11. Dr. Kate Clancy said:

    p.s. Ms. Moon, I’ve been trying all day to not totally go fangirl on you for commenting on my blog :). I’m a huge fan!

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  13. EMoon said:

    Omigosh…thanks! (A certain amount of bouncing in return…ditto.)

  14. dsks said:

    I think your interpretation is a little deeper than the author intended. This comes across as a single layer satire in which the “joke” is meant to highlight what he feels is a serious concern in re celeb scientists casting a shadow over The Real Scientists.

    If this is supposed to be a double layered satire skewering conventional metrics of success and productivity, then its delivery is amateurish.

  15. Arlo said:

    Beautiful piece, thank you. Another fallacy of the Kardashian Index is that it assumes that one’s Twitter audience grew uniquely on the merits (or purported merits) of one’s science. It ignores the possibility that someone in science might just have a lot of friends, be charismatic, or excel at something non-scientific such as sports or the arts. Rubbish.

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  18. Graham Steel (@McDawg) said:

    It was funniest entity on Twitter last week, so I Storified it

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