The Tesla index: a measure of social isolation for scientists


In the era of social media there are now many different ways that a scientist can build their public profile; the publication of high-quality scientific papers being just one. While publishing journal and book articles is a valuable tool for the dissemination of knowledge, there is a danger that scientists become isolated, and remain disconnected from reality, sitting alone in their ivory towers. Such reclusiveness has been long been all too common among academic scientists and we are losing sight of other key outreach efforts such as the use of social media as a tool for communicating science. To help quantify this problem of social isolation, I propose the ‘Tesla Index’, a measure of the discrepancy between the somewhat stuffy, outdated practice of generating peer-reviewed publications and the growing trend of vibrant, dynamic engagement with other scientists and the general public through use of social media.


There are many scientists who actively take the time to pursue their science in as much of a public manner as possible. They work hard to ensure that their peers, and the public at large, are kept informed of their latest research. Consider Titus Brown, a genomics and evolution professor at Michigan State University[1]. Although he has contributed to a meagre number of — largely uninteresting — publications[2], he has instead embraced social media[3] to excite and stimulate others with news of his past, current, and future work.

Now consider Nikola Tesla[4]; although he may have forever changed the world through his many scientific inventions[5], he was a famous recluse[6] and surprisingly did not contribute to any blog, nor did he even bother to set up an account on twitter. I am concerned that the anti-social and secretive behavior of Nikola Tesla is something that is all too common in many other scientists, particularly in those who continue their obsession with publishing work that will forever live behind pay-walls, invisible to all but the priviledged few.

I therefore think it’s time that we develop a metric that will clearly indicate if a scientist is a reclusive introvert with no interest in sharing their work with others or engaging with the wider community. This will allow others to adjust our expectations of them accordingly. In order to quantify the problem and to devise a solution, I have compared the numbers of followers that research scientists have on twitter with the number of citations they have for their peer-reviewed work. This analysis has identified clear outliers, or ‘Teslas’, within the scientific community. I propose a new metric, which I call the ‘Tesla Index’, which allows a simple quantification as to the degree of social isolation of any particular scientist.

Results and Discussion

I took the number of Twitter followers as a measure of ‘social outreach and engagement’ while the number of citations was taken as a measure of ‘boring scientific output’. The data gathered are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Twitter followers versus number of scientific citations for a sort-of-random sample of researcher tweeters

I propose that the Tesla Index (T-index) can be calculated as simply the number of Twitter followers a user has, divided by their total number of citations. A low T-index is a warning to the community that researcher 'X' may be forsaking all methods of publicly sharing their work at the expense of soley publishing manuscripts. In contrast, a very high T-index suggests that a scientist is being active in the community, informing and educating their peers, colleagues, and the wider public. They are thus playing a positive role in society. Here, I propose that those people whose T-index is lower than 0.5 can be considered ‘Science Teslas’; these individuals are highlighted in Figure 1.


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This research was inspired by a piece of completely unrelated work by Neil Hall. 

Ewan Birney's EBI press conference on being elected to the Royal Society

Speaker: And that concludes this EBI press conference to congratulate Ewan Birney on being elected to the Royal Society. We just have time for one or two questions. Ah okay...the first question goes to…Ewan Birney.

Ewan: Hi Ewan. Just wanted to say that this is all great and I've found your work to be really interesting. Can I just ask whether you've looked at the opportunity of widening this effort by joining other Royal Societies as well? This would allow for a much better comparative analysis of the scope and impact of Royal Society members? The Royal Statistical Society may be a good choice to begin with, or maybe the Royal Society of Marine Artists.

Ewan: Thanks Ewan, that's a really good question. It is something that I'm considering and I think there is a lot to gain from such a comparative approach. But to do this properly I think it needs to be part of a much larger effort. So I'm hopeful of trying to join every Royal Society and then see what can be learned from a cross-societal analysis of such memberships. Furthermore I'm hopeful that Her Majesty could be persuaded to start a new Royal Society for the Promotion of Questions by People Named Ewan at Academic Conferences…something that is very near and dear to my heart.

Speaker: Okay, I think we have time for just one more question. Oh, Ewan…again.

Ewan: Just to follow up Ewan, given the advanced age of many Royal Society members, have you thought about trying to assess what fraction of the Royal Society is functional?

Ewan: That's a fantastic question Ewan, very perceptive of you. This is something else that I have a strong interest in. I am currently involved in some preliminary discussions with various people to form a new pan-European working group that will investigate how much of the Royal Society is functional. This effort will hopefully be called ENCODEMBLIXIR…or something snappy like that. 


Jesting aside, congratulations Ewan this is great news!