Friday, 19 May 2017

The top 50 science stars of Twitter | Science | AAAS


Martyn Green

The top 50 science stars of Twitter

Neil Hall sparked an online tempest this summer by proposing a
“Kardashian Index,” or K-index—a comparison of a scientist’s number of
Twitter followers with their citations. Scientists with a high score on
the index, named after the reality TV star Kim Kardashian,
one of the most popular celebrities on the social media platform,
should “get off Twitter” and write more papers, suggested Hall, who
works at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

Though Hall says he meant his K-index lightheartedly, his article in Genome Biology
sparked a Twitter storm of criticism. So just who are the Kardashians
of science, and is Hall’s criticism justified? Hall tactfully declined
to provide a K-index for anyone specific, but Science was
curious about the names and the numbers. We have compiled a list of the
50 most followed scientists on the social media platform and their
academic citation counts—and calculated their K-index by drawing on
citation data from Google Scholar (A fuller explanation of how we compiled the list is below, at the end of the full story).

The top three science stars of Twitter:

(Based on followers)
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson1. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

    2,400,000 followers @neiltyson

    Citations: 151 K-index: 11129

    Total number of tweets: 3,962
    Hayden Planetarium, United States

  • Brian Cox2. Brian Cox, Physicist

    1,440,000 followers @ProfBrianCox

    Citations: 33,301 K-index: 1188

    Total number of tweets: 10,300
    University of Manchester, United Kingdom

  • Richard Dawkins3. Richard Dawkins, Biologist

    1,020,000 followers @RichardDawkins

    Citations: 49,631 K-index: 740

    Total number of tweets: 19,000
    University of Oxford, United Kingdom

See the full top 50 list.
Rather than identifying “Science Kardashians”—those who are, as Hall
put it, “famous for being famous”—the top 50 list reveals that a
majority of the science Twitter stars spend much, if not all, of their
time on science communication. For them, Twitter popularity can amplify
their efforts in public outreach. A case in point is Neil deGrasse
Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and host of
the science TV show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. With more than
2.4 million followers and fewer than 200 citations, the astrophysicist
is undoubtedly the top-ranking celebrity scientist on Twitter—and has
the highest K-index of anyone on the list. Yet few would consider his
Twitter fame unwarranted.

Although the index is named for a woman, Science’s survey
highlights the poor representation of female scientists on Twitter,
which Hall hinted at in his commentary. Of the 50 most followed
scientists, only four are women. Astronomer Pamela Gay of Southern
Illinois University, Edwardsville, whose more than 17,000 Twitter
followers put her 33rd on the list, says the result doesn’t surprise her
because society still struggles to recognize women as leaders in
science. Female scientists are also more likely to face sexist attacks
online that can discourage their participation, she adds. “At some
point, you just get fed up with all the ‘why you are ugly’ or ‘why you
are hot’ comments.”

Twitter stardom need not exclude research achievements, as our top 50
Twitter list shows. Many have thousands of citations and seven of the
people listed also appear on two recent citation-based rankings of
influential scientists, the 2014 Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers list and Scholarometer’s top 100 authors ranking. Even so, most high-performing scientists have not embraced Twitter. Science
sampled Twitter usage among 50 randomly chosen living scientists from
the Scholarometer list. Only a fifth of the scientists have an
identifiable Twitter profile.

Even some who do dislike the medium. Chad Mirkin of Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, the highest ranking chemist on
Scholarometer’s list, considers Twitter a waste of precious time that
he’d much prefer spending on reading and writing scientific papers. “A
lot of social media is … time spent aggrandizing one’s accomplishment,”
says Mirkin, who registered on Twitter just to keep up with his son’s
tennis scores. The linguist Noam Chomsky, the most famous living scientist by some measures, has also repeatedly criticized social media for reducing serious public discourse to, well, 140 characters.

So why do the highly cited researchers who are also Twitter science
stars make the time to engage in social media? Geneticist Eric Topol of
the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California (17th place;
44,800 followers), who boasts more than 150,000 citations, says he once
thought the social media platform was only for “silly stuff” like
celebrity news. Then he tried Twitter during a TEDMED conference in
2009, as a tool to gauge reactions to his talk. Now, he starts his
workday browsing through his Twitter feed for news and noteworthy
research in his field. During the day, he checks Twitter several times
and spends another 10 to 20 minutes on an evening roundup. “It actually
may be the most valuable time [I spend] in terms of learning things that
are going on in the world of science and medicine,” says Topol, who
reciprocates by daily tweeting papers, presentations, and more to his

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University (36th; 15,500
followers) views Twitter as a natural extension of his other public
outreach efforts, which include hosting the PBS science documentary, This Emotional Life.
For him, Twitter is a virtual classroom connecting netizens worldwide
who are interested in the psychology of happiness. “It’s another
teaching tool,” he says.

Like Topol, Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis
(25th; 24,900 followers), says he did not start out as a Twitter fan. An
enthusiast of open access and exchange, Eisen participated in
scientific discussion forums, such as newsgroups, even before the days
of the World Wide Web. But Twitter’s 140-character word limit initially
seemed both “arbitrary and useless” to him, he says. It was for purely
coincidental reasons—checking out details of a visit by famed cyclist
Lance Armstrong to Davis, California—that the microbiologist signed up
for an account in 2008.

But after 20 minutes of perusing news on the social media platform
that day, Eisen says, he was hooked. “In a minute, I can skim through a
hundred Twitter posts. … It’s pretty amazing for getting a feel of
what’s going on,” says Eisen, who now daily spends anywhere from 5
minutes to 8 hours on Twitter, in addition to running a blog. Yet Eisen
also has close to 42,000 citations under his belt.

Eisen says that consistently tweeting ongoing research at his lab has
helped attract graduate students as well as two grants for science
communication. He suggests an active social media presence might even
aid applications for research funding, as it demonstrates a commitment
to public outreach. But the spontaneity of Twitter can backfire, too.
Eisen, for one, has live-tweeted brusque criticism at academic
conferences that came back to bite him. “You can seem like a jerk, an
idiot, or both,” he says.

The temporal, attention-grabbing nature of Twitter posts also makes
them ill-suited for nuanced, in-depth scientific discussions. Gilbert
says he prefers to tweet materials that appeal to a general audience,
rather than complex scientific papers. Likewise, Eisen reserves lengthy
discussions for old-fashioned phone calls and uses Twitter to instead
link to blog posts and other, longer materials.

Still, he and others credit Twitter as a crowdsourcing platform for
new ideas and research. Topol says he relies on the “army of Web
crawlers” on Twitter to bring him the latest, most noteworthy research
in medical science. His own tweets, mostly about papers and
presentations he finds interesting, also form an archive that can be
extracted with a little tech savvy.

The social media tool also functions as “another dimension of peer
review,” Topol says. Instead of waiting for the old letters to the
editor, scientists can go to Twitter for rapid critique of their
research. “Authors who are not willing to get engaged on social media
are missing out on a significant opportunity,” he says.

The K-index gets it wrong by suggesting that science communication
and research productivity are incompatible, says Albert-László Barabási,
a network theorist at Northeastern University in Boston who studies
social media. Research on altmetrics—alternative metrics for measuring
scientific impact—has found no link
between social media metrics such as number of tweets and traditional
impact metrics such as citations, he says. “We should really not mix the
two … because they really probe different aspects of a scientist’s

For his part, Hall says others have read too much into his satire,
which originated after seeing conference organizers factor Twitter
follower numbers into speaker considerations. “I don’t mean to criticize
anyone for having a lot of Twitter followers,” he says. “My criticism
is only of using it as a metric on research scientists.”

It might be premature, in any case, for the scientific community to
worry about “Science Kardashians” when it faces a more pressing
challenge of staying relevant in public discussions. Even Tyson’s
Twitter popularity is dwarfed by that of the real Kim Kardashian, who
boasts 10 times as many followers.


The list of most followed scientists compiled here is far from
scientific. To identify Twitter science stars, we began with celebrity
scientists such as Tyson and checked out which scientists they followed.
We also referenced online lists of scientists to follow on Twitter,
such as this one by
The Huffington Post.
If we’ve missed someone who belongs on the top 50 list, do let us know
in the comment section. Follower number is, of course, a very crude
proxy of influence on Twitter, but it’s the most accessible metric for
the purpose of this story.

The question of who counts as a scientist is itself a matter of
debate. As a general guideline, we included only those who have
completed a Ph.D. degree and published at least one peer-reviewed paper
in a peer-reviewed journal. As an exception to this rule, we excluded
professional journalists who fit the above criteria.

We recorded the number of Twitter followers for our list on 15
September. To tally the number of citations for each scientist, we over
the past month looked up their Google Scholar profiles or, for those
without a profile, used estimates produced by the Publish or Perish
software, developed by business professor Anne-Wil Harzing of ESCP
Europe. Due to limitations of both methods, the citation numbers are
only rough estimates. For example, there’s no easy way to distinguish
physicist Brian Cox of the University of Manchester in the United
Kingdom from physiologist Brian Cox of the University of Toronto in
Canada in calculating the former’s citation count. Seven on our top 50
list appear on either the 2014 Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers list (*) or the Scholarometer’s top 100 authors (+) ranking, and each is noted with a symbol.

The Kardashian Index is calculated as follows: In his commentary,
using data gathered on 40 scientists, Hall derived a formula for
calculating the number of Twitter followers a scientist should have
given one’s citation count. The K-index is the ratio of the scientist’s
actual follower number to the follower number “warranted” by the
citation count.

An Excel document with all the data collected is here.

 The top 50 science stars of Twitter

Read the full story on this list.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson1. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

    2,400,000 followers @neiltyson

    Citations: 151 K-index: 11129

    Total number of tweets: 3,962
    Hayden Planetarium, United States

  • Brian Cox2. Brian Cox, Physicist

    1,440,000 followers @ProfBrianCox

    Citations: 33,301 K-index: 1188

    Total number of tweets: 10,300
    University of Manchester, United Kingdom

  • Richard Dawkins3. Richard Dawkins, Biologist

    1,020,000 followers @RichardDawkins

    Citations: 49,631 K-index: 740

    Total number of tweets: 19,000
    University of Oxford, United Kingdom

  • Ben Goldacre4. Ben Goldacre, Physician

    341,000 followers @bengoldacre

    Citations: 1,086 K-index: 841

    Total number of tweets: 47,300
    London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom

  • Phil Plait5. Phil Plait, Astronomer

    320,000 followers @BadAstronomer

    Citations: 254 K-index: 1256

    Total number of tweets: 47,000
    Bad Astronomy, United States

  • Michio Kaku6. Michio Kaku, Theoretical physicist

    310,000 followers @michiokaku

    Citations: 5,281 K-index: 461

    Total number of tweets: 1,130
    The City College of New York, United States

  • Sam Harris7. Sam Harris, Neuroscientist

    224,000 followers @SamHarrisOrg

    Citations: 2,416 K-index: 428

    Total number of tweets: 2,600
    Project Reason, United States

  • Hans Rosling8. Hans Rosling, Global health scientist

    180,000 followers @HansRosling

    Citations: 1,703 K-index: 384

    Total number of tweets: 2,708
    Karolinska Institute, Sweden

  • Tim Berners-Lee9. Tim Berners-Lee, Computer scientist

    179,000 followers @timberners_lee

    Citations: 51,204 K-index: 129

    Total number of tweets: 542
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States

  • P.Z. Myers10. P.Z. Myers, Biologist

    155,000 followers @pzmyers

    Citations: 1,364 K-index: 355

    Total number of tweets: 25,400
    University of Minnesota, Morris, United States

  • Steven Pinker11. Steven Pinker, Cognitive scientist

    142,000 followers @sapinker

    Citations: 49,933 K-index: 103

    Total number of tweets: 1,612
    Harvard University, United States

  • Richard Wiseman12. Richard Wiseman, Psychologist

    134,000 followers @RichardWiseman

    Citations: 4,687 K-index: 207

    Total number of tweets: 22,400
    University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

  • Lawrence M. Krauss13. Lawrence M. Krauss, Theoretical physicist

    99,700 followers @LKrauss1

    Citations: 10,155 K-index: 120

    Total number of tweets: 1,548
    Arizona State University, United States

  • Atul Gawande14. Atul Gawande, Surgeon/public health scientist

    96,800 followers @Atul_Gawande

    Citations: 13,763 K-index: 106

    Total number of tweets: 2,118
    Harvard University, United States

  • Oliver Sacks15. Oliver Sacks, Neurologist

    76,300 followers @OliverSacks

    Citations: 13,883 K-index: 83

    Total number of tweets: 746
    New York University, United States

  • Dan Ariely*16. Dan Ariely*, Psychologist/behavioral economist

    73,000 followers @danariely

    Citations: 16,307 K-index: 76

    Total number of tweets: 1,091
    Duke University, United States

  • Eric Topol*17. Eric Topol*, Geneticist

    44,800 followers @EricTopol

    Citations: 151,281 K-index: 23

    Total number of tweets: 4,966
    The Scripps Research Institute, United States

  • Brian Greene18. Brian Greene, Theoretical physicist

    38,700 followers @bgreene

    Citations: 11,133 K-index: 45

    Total number of tweets: 191
    Columbia University, United States

  • Marcus du Sautoy19. Marcus du Sautoy, Mathematician

    34,200 followers @MarcusduSautoy

    Citations: 1,461 K-index: 77

    Total number of tweets: 3,555
    University of Oxford, United Kingdom

  • Sean Carroll20. Sean Carroll, Theoretical physicist

    33,200 followers @seanmcarroll

    Citations: 14,208 K-index: 36

    Total number of tweets: 7,295
    California Institute of Technology, United States

  • Robert Winston21. Robert Winston, Fertility scientist

    31,900 followers @ProfRWinston

    Citations: 7,324 K-index: 43

    Total number of tweets: 445
    Imperial College London, United Kingdom

  • Bruce Betts22. Bruce Betts, Planetary scientist

    28,500 followers @RandomSpaceFact

    Citations: 91 K-index: 155

    Total number of tweets: 1,619
    The Planetary Society, United States

  • Carolyn Porco23. Carolyn Porco, Planetary scientist

    26,100 followers @carolynporco

    Citations: 2,717 K-index: 48

    Total number of tweets: 12,700
    Space Science Institute, United States

  • Sebastian Thrun+24. Sebastian Thrun+, Computer scientist

    25,200 followers @SebastianThrun

    Citations: 57,110 K-index: 17

    Total number of tweets: 185
    Stanford University, United States

  • Jonathan Eisen*25. Jonathan Eisen*, Biologist

    24,900 followers @phylogenomics

    Citations: 41,289 K-index: 19

    Total number of tweets: 46,100
    University of California, Davis, United States

  • J. Craig Venter26. J. Craig Venter, Genomicist

    23,500 followers @JCVenter

    Citations: 75,338 K-index: 15

    Total number of tweets: 365
    J. Craig Venter Institute, United States

  • Vaughan Bell27. Vaughan Bell, Neuroscientist

    23,500 followers @vaughanbell

    Citations: 821 K-index: 63

    Total number of tweets: 10,900
    King's College London, United Kingdom

  • Robert Simpson28. Robert Simpson, Astronomer

    21,500 followers @orbitingfrog

    Citations: 2,280 K-index: 42

    Total number of tweets: 11,500
    University of Oxford, United Kingdom

  • Michael E. Mann*29. Michael E. Mann*, Meteorologist

    20,900 followers @MichaelEMann

    Citations: 15,049 K-index: 22

    Total number of tweets: 20,000
    Pennsylvania State University, United States

  • Jerry Coyne30. Jerry Coyne, Biologist

    19,500 followers @Evolutionistrue

    Citations: 16,657 K-index: 20

    Total number of tweets: 7,711
    University of Chicago, United States

  • Gary King*31. Gary King*, Statistician

    19,400 followers @kinggary

    Citations: 36,311 K-index: 16

    Total number of tweets: 3,080
    Harvard University, United States

  • Mike Brown32. Mike Brown, Astronomer

    18,300 followers @plutokiller

    Citations: 7,870 K-index: 24

    Total number of tweets: 9,764
    California Institute of Technology, United States

  • Pamela L. Gay33. Pamela L. Gay, Astronomer

    17,800 followers @starstryder

    Citations: 238 K-index: 71

    Total number of tweets: 12,700
    Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, United States

  • Jean Francois Gariépy34. Jean Francois Gariépy, Neuroscientist

    17,700 followers @JFGariepy

    Citations: 153 K-index: 82

    Total number of tweets: 3,231
    Duke University, United States

  • Bob Metcalfe35. Bob Metcalfe, Computer scientist

    16,400 followers @BobMetcalfe

    Citations: 424 K-index: 55

    Total number of tweets: 16,100
    University of Texas, Austin, United States

  • Daniel Gilbert+36. Daniel Gilbert+, Psychologist

    15,500 followers @DanTGilbert

    Citations: 26,752 K-index: 14

    Total number of tweets: 1,294
    Harvard University, United States

  • Daniel Levitin37. Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist

    15,400 followers @danlevitin

    Citations: 5,688 K-index: 22

    Total number of tweets: 3,036
    McGill University, Canada

  • Andrew Maynard38. Andrew Maynard, Environmental health scientist

    15,300 followers @2020science

    Citations: 10,411 K-index: 18

    Total number of tweets: 16,200
    University of Michigan Risk Science Center, United States

  • Paul Bloom39. Paul Bloom, Psychologist

    15,100 followers @paulbloomatyale

    Citations: 14,135 K-index: 16

    Total number of tweets: 1,973
    Yale University, United States

  • Matt Lieberman40. Matt Lieberman, Neuroscientist

    14,500 followers @social_brains

    Citations: 12,763 K-index: 16

    Total number of tweets: 3,088
    University of California, Los Angeles, United States

  • Seth Shostak41. Seth Shostak, Astronomer

    14,500 followers @SethShostak

    Citations: 424 K-index: 48

    Total number of tweets: 294
    SETI Institute, United States

  • Daniel MacArthur42. Daniel MacArthur, Genomicist

    14,100 followers @dgmacarthur

    Citations: 6,884 K-index: 19

    Total number of tweets: 15,600
    Harvard Medical School, United States

  • John Allen Paulos43. John Allen Paulos, Mathematician

    14,000 followers @JohnAllenPaulos

    Citations: 1,489 K-index: 31

    Total number of tweets: 4,144
    Temple University, United States

  • Ves Dimov44. Ves Dimov, Immunologist

    13,900 followers @DrVes

    Citations: 211 K-index: 58

    Total number of tweets: 32,200
    University of Chicago, United States

  • Simon Baron-Cohen45. Simon Baron-Cohen, Psychopathologist

    13,600 followers @sbaroncohen

    Citations: 84,132 K-index: 8

    Total number of tweets: 119
    University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

  • Amy Mainzer46. Amy Mainzer, Astronomer

    13,600 followers @AmyMainzer

    Citations: 1,444 K-index: 31

    Total number of tweets: 2,221
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, United States

  • Brian Krueger47. Brian Krueger, Genomicist

    12,500 followers @LabSpaces

    Citations: 154 K-index: 58

    Total number of tweets: 36,700
    Duke University, United States

  • Karen James48. Karen James, Biologist

    12,200 followers @kejames

    Citations: 1,007 K-index: 31

    Total number of tweets: 61,800
    Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, United States

  • Michael Eisen49. Michael Eisen, Biologist

    11,800 followers @mbeisen

    Citations: 68,785 K-index: 8

    Total number of tweets: 16300
    University of California, Berkeley, United States

  • Micah Allen50. Micah Allen, Neuroscientist

    11,600 followers @neuroconscience

    Citations: 81 K-index: 66

    Total number of tweets: 21,900
    University College London, United Kingdom

Correction, 17 September, 12:22 p.m.: Some affiliations and areas of expertise have been corrected.

The top 50 science stars of Twitter | Science | AAAS

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