THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE IS... TWITTER?
Needless to say, while Hall’s overall criticism of metrics may echo what many of us feel about the impact factor, his message was overshadowed by the perceived attack on Twitter’s value as a science communication tool.
The Internet Unleashes Its Wrath
There is value (not to mention skill) in communicating science via any platform, whether it’s to promote discussion across the scientific community or engage with the public. Even in the context of a joke, to belittle this as a “form of communication [that] is gaining too high a value”1 is demeaning and damaging to public outreach efforts—a critical, but already under-appreciated crusade.
This Isn't a New Controversy
Even today, scholars continue to struggle with this issue. Although public outreach is now recognized as a necessary and valiant endeavor, the academic culture itself still subtly discourages involvement in these activities. In fact, it’s quietly understood that “no one ever gets tenure for doing service.”4
For a young professor juggling a gazillion responsibilities, adopting the “publish or perish” mentality is still the most efficient path to tenure, and outreach efforts can easily get swept aside. In some cases, participating in outreach (or rather, too much outreach) can actually be a detriment; in a completely non-ironic Guide to Getting Tenure, the author recalls an actual quote:5
“I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.”
Twitter Gets the Last Laugh
While some scientists may still consider Twitter to be frivolous, many academic journals are beginning to take it seriously. PLoS ONE already displays the number of Twitter and Facebook mentions each article receives, just as Nature provides an “altmetric score” to describe the amount of online attention that each paper gets from both social media and mainstream news outlets.
This “altmetrics” movement comes close on the heels of growing concern about the current gold standard—the impact factor. Since 1990, the correlation between impact factor and paper citations has been diminishing; the highest cited papers aren’t necessarily coming from high impact factor journals.10 And since citations often take years to accrue, people are turning to social media mentions, as a more real-time assessment of “impact”.11
1. Hall, Neil. (2014) The Kardashian Index: A Measure of Discrepant Social Media Profiles for Scientists. Genome Biology 15:424.
2. “Neil Hall to marry Kim Kardashian in summer ceremony.” The Science Web. Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://thescienceweb.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/neil-hall-to-marry-kim-kardashian-in-summer-ceremony/
3. Stokes, Mitch. Isaac Newton. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc, 2010. Print.
4. “The good, the meh, and the ugly of pre-tenure service.” Tenure She Wrote. Retrieved 15 August 2014 from http://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-good-the-meh-and-the-ugly-of-pre-tenure-service/
5. Carroll, Sean. “How to get tenure at a major research university.” Discover Magazine. Retrieved 15 August 2014 fromhttp://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/03/30/how-to-get-tenure-at-a-major-research-university/#.VAN6z2RdVT5
6. Sugimoto CR, Thelwall M, Larivière V, Tsou A, Mongeon P, Macaluso B. (2013) Scientists popularizing science: characteristics and impact of TED talk presenters. PLoS One8(4):e62403.
7. Taleb, Nassim. Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.
8. Van Noorden, Richard. “Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network.” Nature: News and Comment. Retrieved 13 August 2014 from http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711?WT.mcid=TWTNatureNews
9. Priem J, Costello K, and Dzuba T. “Prevalence and use of Twitter among scholars.” Retrieved 15 August 2014 fromhttp://figshare.com/articles/PrevalenceanduseofTwitteramongscholars/104629
10. Lozano GA et al. (2012) The weakening relationship between the impact factor and papers’ citations in the digital age. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63(11):2140-2145.
11. Thelwall M et al. (2013) Do Altmetrics Work? Twitter and Ten Other Social Web Services.PLoS ONE 8(5):e64841.