"Attention is not Impact" and Other Challenges for Altmetrics

June 24, 2015 Cassidy Sugimoto

The altmetrics manifesto, published in 2010 by Jason Priem and colleagues, argued for a new type of metric to capture the diversity of the contemporary scholarly system—making manifest both the heterogeneity of scholarly output and the impact of scholarship on science and society alike. As stated: “Altmetrics expand our view of what impact looks like, but also of what’s making the impact." Priem defines altmetrics as the “study and use of scholarly impact measures based on activity in online tools and environments” and lists blogs, microblogs, reference management systems, and data repositories as potential sources.

Source: iunewind/iStockphotoThere has been a proliferation of activity around altmetrics since this introduction, spurred in no small part by the growing emphasis of funding agencies on the demonstration of impactbeyond academia.” Scholarly metrics have never been without criticism; however, the expansion of data and sources and the increased use for evaluation have brought renewed concern around the ethical principles of research metrics.

Here are some of the particular challenges facing altmetrics, including the misappropriation of the term impact, the narrow scope of focus, and the potential goal displacement of scientific activity:

The term impact has been readily and regularly adopted into the altmetrics discourse. Altmetric.com—a start-up measuring online activity of scholarly journal articles—claims to measure attention, but asserts that publishers can “showcase research impact”, institutions can have a “richer picture of their online research impact”, and researchers can monitor “personal research impact.” Similarly, the tagline of Impactstory—a non-profit focused on aggregating individual-level altmetric data—urges you to “Discover your impact today.” Scientometric studies have followed suit—regularly employing the term impact when discussing altmetric measures. This is in keeping with hallowed traditions within science evaluation—the simultaneously reviled and revered Journal Impact Factor (JIF) continues to reign over scientific publishing and, in doing so, makes metonymic the relationship between citation counts and impact. It is no far stretch, then, to equate new metrics of scholarly attention with impact.

This seems, however, a great distortion of the meaning of impact. Does the act of tweeting evoke an image of forcible contact? Does a save on Mendeley represent the strong effect of an article on the user? The term impact connotes far greater engagement and transformative effect than is currently justifiable with altmetric data. A more persuasive claim is that what is captured are metrics of attention of a scholarly object—the nature of this attention is something much more complex and far less understood. One can easily find examples of extremely high Altmetric.com scores which are the result of a viral joke, proofreading error, or scientific hoax. Behind these outliers are undoubtedly scores of articles whose recognition in policy documents, popular press, and on social media is a legitimate sign that the work is relevant and interesting to a broader public. How to identify the underlying mechanism of altmetric attention remains a critical challenge.

Understanding the mechanisms and motivations of altmetric attention is hampered by the inability to accurately identify the public upon which altmetrics is effecting change. The notion of a mythical science-tweeting-lay-public is persistent in the narrative, yet absent from empirical studies. In a recent study of tweets to journal articles from PLoS ONE, PNAS, Science, and Nature, we identified more than a third of those tweeting links to scientific articles as holders of doctoral degrees—far exceeding the proportion of doctoral degree holders in the general population. Knowledge about who is generating traces of attention is a necessary factor in establishing the credibility of altmetrics.

Another challenge is in the realization of the expansive goals of the altmetric movement. The promise of altmetrics was a broadening of measures of impact that took into account all the various ways in which scholarship is produced and disseminated. However, most altmetric studies have focuses exclusively on journal article metrics from relatively few platforms. While it is laudable to demonstrate the attention an article is receiving from these sources, it is a far cry from the foundational message—that is, that scholarship is no longer confined to “slow rigid formal communication systems.” Where are the metrics that capture the cacophony of scholarly activity? Researchers and practitioners must think creatively about the types of scholarship which remain hidden, despite the valiant efforts of the altmetric movement.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is the concern of goal displacement—an inevitable byproduct of the promotion of altmetrics. Campbell’s Law states the issue most precisely: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Libraries have begun to incorporate altmetrics into institutional repositories and to provide guidance to researchers on how to document altmetrics on their CVs for the purposes of promotion, tenure, and merit evaluation. The underlying assumption is that an article has more worth if it has a higher altmetric score and, by extension, a scholar‘s worth increases as more articles receive mention. One might argue that review of scholars is more nuanced and that reviewers would not fall prey to such gross misinterpretation of data. However, as those who have studied citation analysis or sought publication in a high JIF journal can attest, numbers are persuasive to evaluators examining dozens of dossiers.

The scientific community, administrators, and policy makers should take care lest we let the tweet become the end in itself: topics should not be chosen for their potential to go viral, nor should scholars spend inordinate time managing their reputations online. Altmetrics should be harnessed not to replace any existing metrics, but rather to expand the tools available to demonstrate the diffusion of science. Responsible use of altmetrics requires that we diligently seek to understand the underlying mechanisms of measures of attention, expand our ability to capture the diversity of traces of scholarly activity, and realize that attention is not impact.

About the Author

Assistant Professor, Indiana University // Cassidy Sugimoto researches within the domain of scholarly communication and scientometrics, examining the formal and informal ways in which knowledge producers consume and disseminate scholarship. She has co-edited two volumes and has published 60 journal articles on this topic.

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