Which TED Talk presenters spark the most conversation among viewers? The answer, according to a new study, is professors — though Internet celebrity is unlikely to earn them any points within their academic disciplines.
In a study of more than 1,200 TED Talk videos  gathered from YouTube and the TED website, researchers at Indiana University found those that featured academic presenters received more comments than videos that featured non-academics. Academic presenters also have a higher "like" proportion on YouTube than do others. However, giving a TED presentation appeared to have no impact on the number of citations subsequently received by academic presenters.
TED , “devoted to ideas worth spreading,” originally brought together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, but has broadened its scope. Along with its two annual conferences, the nonprofit also has a TED Talks site, featuring more than 1,000 free videos.
For Fiorenzo Omenetto, being popular with his students is more important than having prestige among his peers, when it comes to these talks. “Citations — yeah sure, whatever. You earn points from students,” said Omenetto, a biomedical engineering professor at Tufts University who presented at the TED2011 conference. “And if part of your academic job is to educate and reach out, then [TED] is a very effective tool."
In his TED Talk , titled, “Silk, the ancient material of the future,” Omenetto spoke about developing new applications for silk technology. His video currently has 24,888 views, 765 likes and 134 comments on YouTube. Omenetto said his students often show their parents the video in order to explain what they’ve learned in the classroom since “the world of research is often very abstract.”
Cassidy Sugimoto, an assistant professor at Indiana University at Bloomington and the study’s lead researcher, said that even if academics are not using TED Talks on the research front, she found that professors are realizing the videos can be a “great pedagogy tool” and are often listed on syllabuses.
And the fact that academics do not seem to be giving talks to increase academic capital is a positive sign, said Sugimoto. “These videos are being used to disseminate information to the public,” she said. “It’s a way for them to increase visibility within the non-science community.”
Despite their videos' popularity, academics are still in the minority of overall TED presenters. Sugimoto’s study shows that 21 percent of the presenters in more than 1,000 TED Talks were academics
Omenetto didn’t find the statistic surprising. “I don’t think academics have even a sense of what TED is,” he said. “There is a lot less awareness of it among faculty than among students.”
The TED viewing population is mostly made up of young people, Sugimoto said. But the majority of TED presenters are older, white and male.
Of the total presenters, 73 percent were male. Academic presenters tended to be in the “successful elite,” the study says, who were already “highly visible” in the scientific community.
It was a finding that Sugimoto finds “disconcerting.”
“Particularly given this type of web platform, we should see women; we should see younger scholars,” Sugimoto said. “They should be equally represented, and they’re not.”
TED Talks help people learn about what is “happening in the ivory tower” of scientific research. In the past, research was constantly mediated through news organizations, so scientific conversations often became polarized and politicized. Now, TED gives the public a unique opportunity to learn about information from primary sources.
“But the question is: Is TED giving every voice an equal chance to speak?” Sugimoto said.
Her research tells her that the answer is a definitive “no.”