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The Impact of TED Talks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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With over a billion views, TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks are a huge business. There are two main TED conferences a year – the TED conference and the TEDGlobal, and a large number of satellite conferences (TEDx) all over the world. A quick Google Scholar search shows TED talks even receive scholarly citations. Sugimoto, Thelwall, Larivière, Tsou, Mongeon and Macaluso (2013) published an article in PLOS ONE discussing the scientific impact of TED talks. They looked into the characteristics of academic presenters, the relationship between these characteristics and video popularity, and the impact a TED talk has on the presenter’s citation impact.

In a shocking display of discrimination, the authors removed presenters like Jor-El and Einstein the Parrot from the sample, merely for not being real and/or human. Less shockingly, groups of presenters were removed as well, and those who presented twice or more were counted only once. That left 998 presenters which were coded for gender and academic status. Every presenter who have completed a doctoral degree and had an affiliation with an academic institute was coded as “academic.” Two-hundred and six presenters, or 21% of the total, were considered as such.


Einstein the Parrot (excluded from the sample)

Gender

Out of the 998 individual presenters, only 27% (268) were women. Out of the 206 academics, 48 were women and 158 were men. Most of the academics received their doctorates in the 1990s, and women were academically younger than men (Fig. 1).There weren’t any women presenters awarded a PhD before the 1970s.  Three-quarters of the male academic presenters have an English Wikipedia entry, compared with only 60% of the female academic presenters. On YouTube, men’s TED talks were more popular and “liked” more than women’s, but there wasn’t any difference between women and men in the TED website.

Dates of doctoral degree for academic presenters, by gender

Figure 1: Dates of doctoral degree for academic presenters, by gender (source: Sugimoto et al., 2013)

Academic characteristics

The 206 academics came from 99 institutes, of which over 70% were represented by one presenter. The top universities were MIT (16 presenters), Stanford (14) and Harvard (13). The authors ranked the academics’ universities according to the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2011–2012, and found there was no connection between the presenter’s popularity and institute.  As possible explanations for this lack of connection they suggested that 1) it could be that the audience didn’t care about institutional affiliation, 2) the audience didn’t care about universities’ prestige and 3) that the audience did care about university affiliation, but that the presenters from less prestigious universities had to be as good as their colleagues from prestige universities to be invited on TED. California-based institutes were highly represented, with 55, or more than a quarter of the presenters, coming from twenty institutes in California. The authors suggested the California bias probably has to do with the TED talks’ Californian origin. Academics’ videos attracted more comments in the TED website and in YouTube, as well as more “liked” on YouTube, but weren’t better watched on either site.

Citation impact

Gingras and Wallace (2010) found that Nobel laureates enjoy a citation boost after the prize (though if you’ve already won a Nobel Prize, you probably don’t need that boost). Based on this finding, the Sugimoto and her colleagues tried to find out whether a TED talk has an impact on the presenters’ citation impact. The authors retrieved all the records of the presenters from Web of Science for the years 1980-2011. To clean the data, they compared the records with publication lists obtained from their webpages. They also compared the disciplines of the journals where the articles were published and the institutes they were affiliated with according to the articles. Then, they tested to see whether the citation numbers have changed significantly before and after the presenter’s TED talk.  They found that in general “TED presentations do not trigger significant increases in citations for an academic.” Lesson: giving a TED talk isn’t the same as winning a Nobel Prize.

As a study limitation, Sugimoto and her colleagues noted that we know very little about the TED audience. Who are the people who together watched TED talks over a billion times?  Data from Alexa.com suggested that visitors who are young (18-24) and in graduate school are overrepresented in the TED site. Future research of the audience (or more likely, audiences) of TED might include analysis of the comments videos attract, or perhaps user surveys that will help us understand the viewers’ demographic and the meaning they attribute to TED talks.

Note: apologies for the long delay between posts. I was busy with a small project called “earning my PhD” (submitted now, thank my advisors and the Flying Spaghetti Monster!).

ResearchBlogging.org

Gingras, Y., & Wallace, M.I. (2010). Why it has become more difficult to predict Nobel Prize winners: A bibliometric analysis of nominees and winners of the Chemistry and Physics Prizes (1901–2007) Scientometrics (82), 401-412 DOI: 10.1007/s11192-009-0035-9

Sugimoto CR, Thelwall M, Larivière V, Tsou A, Mongeon P, & Macaluso B (2013). Scientists popularizing science: characteristics and impact of TED talk presenters. PloS one, 8 (4) PMID: 23638069

Hadas Shema About the Author: Hadas Shema is an Information Science graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. She studies the characteristics of online scientific discourse and is a member of the European Union’s Academic Careers Understood through Measurement and Norms (ACUMEN) project. Hadas tweets at @Hadas_Shema.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bswoger 9:00 am 02/10/2014

    The result that TED talks don’t increase citations is interesting, especially in light of studies suggesting that news coverage of specific studies DOES increase citations. Does it suggest something about the audience? Or the difference between referring to a particular study vs. the exposure granted to an author? Other possibilities?

    Thanks for the summary, and congrats on submitting your dissertation!

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  2. 2. vertland@aol.com 2:14 pm 02/10/2014

    The only problem with TED is that it fosters TED syndrome, which is the belief that all our problems can be fixed with technology, and considering almost all the problems we face day are manifestations of earlier technology fixes it is very naïve and dangerous to think all can be fixed by technology alone. The sad part is that if we had a world population of 3 to 4 billion instead of 7 going on 8 technology could make the Earth an Eden. By mid century there will be 9 to 10 billion of us and no amount of technology will prevent the Earth with that many humans from being a living hell.

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  3. 3. Hadas Shema in reply to Hadas Shema 3:32 am 02/11/2014

    There’s definitely a correlation between news coverage and a citation advantage, but I think there’s a difference: news coverage comes as a part of the newspaper/website you read, while a TED talk is something you need to go to the TED website or to YouTube for it. Perhaps scientists are simply more exposed to news than to TED.

    Thank you!

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