11 Oct 2013

Why altmetrics are about more than just research impact

Much of the discussion around altmetrics to date has centred on the debate around measuring impact, and whether traditional citation-based measures can offer a true reflection of the use, engagement with and value of research to the broader community (and not just other researchers). However, a recent tweet from William Gunn articulated something I have been thinking about myself lately, that is the wider function that these new emerging measures of research impact can serve in helping readers to position an individual article or book in the wider conversation.

Pulling up the altmetrics data for a recent PLOS article reveals a lot more than just a number. For instance, by showing who is bookmarking an article and saving it to Mendeley, it tells the reader something about the other people who are interested in reading, discussing and potentially using the research. Drilling down into the 184 tweets (as of Friday lunchtime) tells you not only who is interested in it, but how and why they are interested in it. Which pull quotes and extracts are they tweeting? What is the key 140 character message from an eight page paper? What is the primary idea or result that this article contributes to the existing body of literature and the current debate? In real-time, you can see how an article is interpreted differently by people who may have contrasting priorities, perspectives or disciplines. Whilst one person zones in on the quote that "the impact factor may be the most satisfactory of the methods" another asks “what does this ultimately mean for the REF coming up in the UK?”. The Google search results reveal which blogs, news and other web sources are talking about the work, and what they are saying.

CC Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/contexttravel/5354550015/
All of this information contributes to something incredibly valuable for the individual reader: context. This is particularly key for those with poorly-developed information literacy skills, who may view or interpret a single article in isolation without understanding that it represents a mere moment in an interminable scholarly conversation. By opening up access to a world of informal discussions in real-time for readers, altmetrics potentially offer a lot more than simply an alternative measure for a researcher's CV.


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