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Measuring Celebrity Scientists

The standard way to measure which scientists are the 'hottest' is to track how often their publications are cited, which journals publish them, and perhaps how many high-profile accolades they collect.

But what if scientists' celebrity could be measured in a similar way to modern celebrity culture in the age of social media? What if there was a way to find out which scientists were famous merely for being famous?

Genomicist Neil Hall recently proposed using a "Kardashian index," which compares a scientist's number of Twitter followers with their citations, to do just that.

Although Hall's modest proposal in Genome Biology was intended as humor, it stirred up a load of criticism in the Twitterverse because it was seen as an admonishment that some scientists should spend less time on social media and more hours in the lab.

Hall did not provide a so-called K-index for any specific science celebs, but Science Magazine has compiled a list of the top 50 most-followed scientists in social media and used Google Scholar data to measure their academic citation counts.

Science's Jia You writes that the top 50 list shows that a majority of the hottest scientists on Twitter "spend much, if not all of their time on science communication."

Standing at the top of the heap is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently hosted the television program Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and serves as a sort of touring science evangelist when he is not busy directing the Hayden Planetarium. He has more than 2.4 million followers on Twitter, but fewer than 200 citations. Similarly, author and biologist Richard Dawkins takes the third spot on the K-index, with over 1 million followers and just under 50,000 citations.

You says that being popular on Twitter does not necessarily mean these are not hard-working scientists, as seven of the people on the list also landed on two recent citation-based rankings of influential scientists.

Several researchers in the genomics world made the top 50 list, including Eric Topol (17); Jonathan Eisen (25); J. Craig Venter (26); Daniel MacArthur (42); Brian Krueger (47); and Michael Eisen (49).