Posted on 16 March 2015 - By Andy Tattersall

Altmetrics: What they are and why they should matter to the library and information community

Altmetrics: a practical guide for librarians, researchers and academics

Altmetrics is probably a term that many readers of this blog will have heard of but are not quite sure what it means and what impact it could have on their role. The simple answer is that altmetrics stands for alternative metrics.

When we say alternative we mean alternative to traditional metrics used in research and by libraries, such as citations and journal impact factors. They are by no means a replacement to traditional metrics but really to draw out more pertinent information tied to a piece of academic work. A new way of thinking about altmetrics is to refer to them as alternative indicators.

Scholarly communication is instrumental to altmetrics

There is also the focus on scholarly communication as altmetrics are closely tied to established social media and networks. Scholarly communication is instrumental to altmetrics and much of what it sets out to measure. These include tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs as well others including Mendeley and Slideshare.

The main protagonists of the altmetrics movement are ImpactStory which was set up by Jason Priem who coined the term ‘altmetrics’. They are joined by FigshareAltmetric.comMendeley, PLOS and Kudos, amongst others. These were mostly established by young researchers who were concerned that research was being measured on the grounds of just a few metrics. These were metrics that gave an unbalanced view of research and did not take into account the technologies that many academics were using to share and discuss their work.

Altmetrics is not just about bean counting, though obviously the more attention a paper gets whether that be citations or Tweets the more interesting it may be to a wider audience, whether that be academics, students or the wider world. The more Tweets a paper gets does not necessarily mean it is better quality than those that do not get Tweeted as much, but the same applied to traditional metrics, more citations does not always mean a great piece of research, it can occasionally highlight the opposite.

Altmetrics provide an insight into things we have not measured before

What altmetrics sets out to do is provide an insight into things we have not measured before, such as social media interaction, media attention, global reach and the potential to spot hot topics and future pieces of highly cited work. In addition altmetrics allows content to be tracked and measured that in the past had been wholly ignored. Such as datasets, grey literature, reports, blog posts and other such content of potential value. 

The current system recognised a slim channel of academic content in a world that is diversifying constantly at a much faster pace than ever. The academic publishing model has struggled to catch up with the modern world of Web 2.0 and social media and therefore academic communication has been stunted. Tools such as Twitter, blogs and Slideshare have allowed researchers to get their content onto the Web instantly, often before they have released the content via the formal channels of conferences and publications.

Tools such as ImpactStory, Figshare and look at the various types of scholarly content and communication and provide metrics to help fund holders, publishers, librarians, researchers and other aligned professionals get a clearer picture of the impact of their work. 

Fundholders can see where their funded research is being discussed and shared, as can researchers who may get to discover their research is not being talked about; which at least gives them reason to perhaps act on that. Publishers can view in addition to existing paper citations, how else they are being discussed and shared. Library and information professionals have an important part to play in all of this.

What is the role of the library and information professional?

There are certain roles in the library and information profession that have plenty to gain by becoming involved with altmetrics. Firstly those that deal with journal subscriptions and hosting content in repositories can gain a new insight into which journals and papers are being shared and discussed via altmetrics. This becomes increasingly important when making yearly subscription choices when journal and book funds are being constantly squeezed. Obviously this is not a solution or get-out clause for librarians when deciding which subscriptions to cancel, as you should not always pick the most popular journals at the expense of minority, niche journal collections, but altmetrics do offer a new set of identifiers when making those tough budgetary decisions. 

LIS professionals are often technically proficient and for those who deliver outreach services and support for academics and students there is much they can do to help explain the new forms of scholarly communication and measurement. Many library and information staff are expert users of social media and tools such as slideshare, Mendeley and blogs. Whilst library and information professionals are in the position where they are often in a neutral role, so can make informed decisions on what is the best way to aid staff discover and communicate research. These skills are starting to spread slowly within the academic community and LIS professionals are in an ideal position to capitalise on altmetrics.

The future

Certainly how academic outputs are measured in the future is anyone’s guess. We could move away from metrics to something that focuses on case studies, or move more towards open public peer review of research. Certainly the impact factor and citation indexes are with us for the foreseeable future. It’s likely we will see an amalgamation of systems with some regarded as more uniform and formal than others. 

As each month passes we see another set of tools appear on the Web that promises to aid researchers share, communicate and discover research, so we could be at risk of information overload and decision fatigue when it comes down to choosing the right tools for the job. The reality is that we are unlikely to discover a magic silver bullet solution for how we measure scholarly work. All of the options offer something and if they can be designed and coerced to work together better; scholarly communication and measurement could reach a plateau of productivity.

Yet this requires an awful lot more engagement from the academic community, one that is already under pressure from various angles to deliver research and extract from it examples of impact. Nevertheless, altmetrics clearly look like they are here to stay for the mid-term at the very least and are gaining acceptance in some parts of the research and publishing sphere. 

For now I suggest you investgate Figshare, ImpactStory, Mendeley and to name but a few in addition to signing up for an librarian account and installing their web bookmarklet. 

To summarise, if we were to draw a Venn Diagram with social media in one bubble, metrics in another we would clearly see librarians in the overlapping area alongside altmetrics. It’s really down to whether you want a share of that space?


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