By: Lizzie Brophy
Journals Publishing Manager, John Wiley
Tracking the impact, citations, and usage of a piece of research is becoming an ever more important aspect of the academic landscape. For the Humanities, this can present a challenge; gathering citations can take much longer than the traditional 2 year windows, the Arts & Humanities Index does not provide an Impact Factor or equivalent, and demonstrating impact beyond the academy in relation to policy or practical application is not always possible. This is especially frustrating for the Humanities as they arguably have a high level of appeal to a public that is made up of armchair archaeologists, hobbyist historians, and literary critics.
Whilst the research article is still the primary way for communicating research outcomes, the digital landscape has opened a range of new ways to share results beyond academia. Social media and online spaces provide an excellent avenue for publicising, promoting, and engaging with all types of research, and consequently, researchers are being encouraged to use this space. They especially lend themselves to the growing field of Digital Humanities, which brings together the practical and the artistic – who doesn’t enjoy seeing the unusual imagery from a scanned and processed illustrated medieval manuscript?
Figure 1: Psalter (‘The Luttrell Psalter’) with calendar
and additional material (MS 42130, F.38r, British Library)
Using social media, blogs, and news sources to engage with research appears straightforward, but using these spaces can be challenging, as can then assessing what they achieved. Altmetric provides one answer to this, providing an avenue for tracking outputs, providing context, and creating strategy.
1. Tracking output mentions
The first and most important feature that Altmetric provides is in tracking mentions of research online. Altmetric works by tracking the unique identifier, be that a DOI, PubMed ID, or other, when this is picked up across the thousands of sites they track, it is added to the Details Page, accessible via Altmetric or via an individual link, such as those found on Publisher’s websites. This Details Page provides a clear overview of how, where, and by whom the research output has been mentioned online.
This is especially important for authors who are promoting their research directly on these sites themselves; Twitter and Blogs have their own ways of tracking usage and mentions, but Altmetric allows a clear overview across a variety of online media, showing how a research item may be posted then picked up, reposted, or reused over time. A good example of this is when research is picked up for news sites, such as The Conversation where researchers write about their own work; as The Conversation has a Creative Commons license, these articles are often republished in the mainstream media. Altmetric allows the author to clearly see and track this, alongside Tweets and Facebook posts.
Altmetric also supports authors with tools to make understanding the online presence of research easier. There are real-time scores on the article pages, acting as a quick way to measure attention; there are regular alerts, designed to flag when an article is experiencing a lot of attention, which allows reaction to what is being said – whether positive or negative; and there are visualisations aimed at helping to show how a research output has fared – though many of these are better suited to looking at a collection of research outputs, such as across a journal, rather than one item.
2. Context of mentions
Whilst providing a way to track research mentions online is one of the key benefits of Altmetric, the other is the level of context it provides. This context comes in several ways, firstly in relation to the visual breakdowns of the interaction of a research output; breakdowns by time, mention type, and country provide a very real and easily understandable view of how research is being shared. The example below shows the geographical breakdown of the mentions in news items received by an article, A Portuguese East-Indiaman (Mearns et al, 2016) which was the focus of news articles around the world.
Not only does Altmetric show general data, it also provides clear lists of what site or user has mentioned the article. This means it provides insight into who is sharing the article, and allows the researcher to dig deeper into why – is it a colleague? A potential collaborator on the other side of the world? A member of the public? This provides a range of possibilities in relation to understanding what elements of the research led to it being shared, but also providing further avenues for engagement beyond that research.
What all this tracking and context really leads to is the ability to think more carefully about strategy, specifically in how to promote and get engagement with a piece of research. Before this though, a researcher must have a clear answer to one question ‘What do I want to achieve?’
Altmetric data can help a researcher understand how their research is disseminated and consumed online, allowing them to get a better understanding of what they want, and can, do – is the aim to simply raise awareness of the research by receiving a thousand tweets, or is there actually a bigger goal that a different form of online promotion would achieve? Social media has its limitations, and understanding those in relation to research is important.
The Altmetric data can then be used to help develop a strategy around promotion and engagement online, ideally something which should now be considered at the beginning of a research project rather than at the end. This can then be supported with measurable figures and examples rather than anecdotal evidence. This strategy can then be tracked and evaluated, its mentions picked up, and assessed, which returns us to the idea of using Altmetric to track.
But it’s not fool-proof…
Whilst Altmetric is a useful tool to researchers, allowing them to track, engage with, and develop research on social media, it is not completely fool-proof. If your aim in promoting research online is to gather citations then you need to tread carefully; it does appear that online engagement is beginning to translate to citations, but this is not guaranteed, and appears to be dependent on exactly who is engaging with the research. Increased usage is more likely, but this also varies; tweets might receive a high number of likes, but a lower number of people clicking on the article link, whereas this is more likely if the research is mentioned in a news item.
Possibly the most common concern is that Altmetric data, and online mentions, do not illustrate quality, only popularity (and not always that); research quality is always difficult to measure in a metric form. Citations though, and the metrics that derive from them, are also not indicative of research quality, only peer review can really provide that view. For Humanities research, which does not engage with citations in the same way as Health or Geo Sciences, it can fulfil a similar function in indicating engagement with research, and allows an avenue for research to become known to the public.
There have been many questions recently around whether Altmetric could be a way of measuring impact in the academic sense, especially in the UK as REF approaches; the conclusion is no, or not entirely (see here and here). Impact is difficult to measure, and whilst Altmetric provides valuable information and insight, it cannot completely cover this area.
Altmetric provides an avenue for considering the promotion of, and engagement with, research in online spaces, especially social media. Whilst it is not a replacement for other measures, and cannot be used for fully assessing impact, it provides insight into the presence of research in a space which arguably, is becoming more important. From this, it allows researchers to gain more control and understanding of how their research is used in this space, and how it can be used to achieve their goals. And for Digital Humanities, a discipline that tends to combine the old with the new, it offers a new path for engaging with the public and measuring the contribution of research.
Psalter (‘The Luttrell Psalter’) with calendar and additional material (MS 42130, F.38r, British Library) – http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_42130_fs001ar
Mearns et al, A Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1502–1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman: an interim report, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 45.2, 2016 – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1095-9270.12175