Attention metrics for academic articles: are they any use?

Why do bibliometrics and altmetrics matter? They are sometimes considered to be measures of attention (see a great post on the Scholarly Kitchen about this), and they attract plenty of attention themselves in the academic world, especially amongst scholarly publishers and academic libraries.

Bibliometrics are mostly about tracking and measuring citations between journal articles or scholarly publications, so they are essentially all about attention from the academic community. There are things that an author can do in order to attract more attention and citations. Not just “gaming the system” (see a paper on Arxiv about such possibilities) but by reaching as many people as possible, in a way that speaks to them as being relevant to their research and thus worthy of a citation.

Citation, research and writing and publishing practices are evolving: journal articles seem to be citing more other papers these days (well, according to a Nature news item, that’s the way to get more cited: it’s a cycle), and researchers are publishing more journal articles (wikipedia has collated some stats) and engaging in collaborative projects (see this Chronicle of Higher Ed article). If researchers want to stay in their “business” then they will need to adapt to current practices, or to shape them. That’s not easy when it comes to metrics about scholarly outputs, because the ground is shifting beneath their feet. What are the spaces to watch?

How many outputs a researcher produces and in which journal titles or venues matter in the UK, because of the RAE and REF excercises, and the way University research is funded there.

Bibliometrics matter to Universities because of University rankings. Perhaps such rankings should not matter, but they do, and the IoE London blog has an excellent article on the topic. So researchers need to either court each others’ attention and citations, or else create authoritative rankings that don’t use bibliometrics.

Altmetrics represent new ways of measuring attention, but they are like shape-shifting clouds in comparison with bibliometrics. We’re yet to ascertain which measures of which kinds of attention, in which kinds of objects, can tell us what exactly. My own take on altmetrics is that context is the key to using them. Many people are working to understand altmetrics as measures and what they can tell us.

Attention is not a signifier of quality (As researchers well know: Carol Tenopir has done a lot of research on researchers’ reading choices and habits). Work which merits attention can do so for good or bad reasons. Attention can come from many different sources, and can mean different things: by measuring attention exchanges, we can take account of trends within different disciplines and timeframes, and the effect of any “gaming” practices.

Attention from outside of the academic community has potential as “impact”. Of course, context is important again, and for research to achieve “impact” then you’ll need to define exactly what kind of impact you intend to achieve. If you want to reach millions of people for two seconds, or engage with just one person whose life will be hugely enriched or who will have influence over others’ lives, then what you do achieve impact or how you measure your success will be different. But social media and the media can play a part in some definitions of impact, and so altmetrics can help to demonstrate success, since they track attention for your article from these channels.

Next week I’ll be sharing two simple, effective stories of twitter use and reporting on its use.

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