“How are people using altmetrics now?” is a good question to look at as the focus of the second panel of the conference. Hearing from a technologist from JISC (representing IRUS-UK), a university-publisher collaboration project (Snowball Metrics), a librarian (from the Nanyang Technical University in Singapore), and an academic who looks at altmetrics data as the object of their research gave the impression that currently altmetrics are being used by a particular, relatively specialised, communities.
And what information is altmetrics able to provide for these communities? So far, the insights seem relatively standard: how many people are downloading articles?; Sharing papers on social media?; Which are the most popular papers in online journals? But these data do provide useful answers to good questions. For Ross MacIntyre discussing IRUS-UK, the question was ‘do people download stuff from university repositories?’ and their altmetrics allowed them to answer yes (and provide information on who and where). For Mike Thelwall from the University of Wolverhampton, the question was ‘do some alternative metric data correlate in any way with citation data?’ His research found that again, for some tools, yes. Mendeley’s ‘read’ data is citation-like in that it correlates positively to citation data for articles published in the same year and same discipline. Twitter correlates less well but is associated with citations, so that a paper that is well-tweeted is also like to be well-cited in the future.
But it seems that the use and value of altmetrics comes at the moment mostly for particular audiences: libraries, university managers, funding bodies and research councils. And their limitation was highlighted by Lisa Colledge from Elsevier discussing Snowball Metrics: “altmetrics are not good enough to judge scholarly quality”. She did argue that their use is as part of a range of tools that allows a more complete picture of academic research to be built up.
And so perhaps the title of the session could have had a follow up question: “What can altmetrics not be used for now?” Audience questions highlighted the problems of giving context to altmetric data and the issue of how to factor in the quality of research shared. It seems that altmetric data and citation data are actually showing us different things. So what are they showing us? And how can we use that information to better understand the wider impact of our research?
One interesting example of this came from Joan Wee from Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. Her study looked at an article in the University’s repository that had a high Altmetric score but relatively low citations. She found that one figure from the paper had been widely shared on social media. But this didn’t translate into traditional citations. This may have been because it was just this one small aspect of the paper, or it may be that the ways that we are sharing academic ideas are changing and we need to be able to reference academic ‘exhibits’ in a different way.
It is the potential for altmetrics to pick up on these changing ways of using and sharing academic research that is the most interesting part of the altmetrics discussion for me.