The Pressures and Perks of Being a Thought Leader

Barmy ideas can gain a foothold just because of the prominence of the person voicing them.Photograph by Tamaki Sono / Flickr

The first time I saw the term, I was mystified. “Hey, Dr S! We’re getting a few KOLs together to give us some advice about how to develop our new compound,” began the friendly e-mail from a pharmaceutical liaison, her return address reflecting her third employer in as many years. “Are you available to come to Atlanta next Saturday? We’ll give you an honorarium for your time.”

KOL? What was that? Because “Google” had not yet become a verb, I pulled out my old college dictionary, but its sole suggestion seemed implausible: the Knights of Labor, a nineteenth century workingman’s organization. In response to my puzzled reply, the liaison patiently explained that KOL in this context meant “Key Opinion Leader,” a respected person who can influence others’ beliefs and actions.

I was flattered: someone valued my opinions enough to pay real money for them? But I also found the term peculiar. Opinions seemed like a nebulous area in which to be a leader; much better to be recognized for expertise in scientific discovery, for development of new effective therapies, or for something else tangible

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