“Altmetrics: A manifesto,” published five years ago this month, described an academic publishing landscape in which the volume of literature was exploding, and the three traditional filters used to help researchers gauge the relative importance of individual papers in their fields—peer review, citation counting, and a journal’s average citations per article—were failing to keep up. Scholars were moving their work onto the web, and alternative, article-level metrics drawn from online reference managers Zotero and Mendeley, scholarly social bookmarking services such as CiteULike, or even page-views of blogs and “likes” or comments on mainstream social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter could be used to track the impact of new research in real time, wrote Impactstory cofounder Jason Priem; Wikimedia Foundation head of research Dario Taraborelli; Paul Groth, then-researcher VU University Amsterdam; and Cameron Neylon, then–senior scientist at the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Could these new metrics be just as relevant as peer review and citations when judging the impact and influence of new research?
“With altmetrics, we can crowdsource peer review,” they proposed. “Instead of waiting months for two opinions, an article’s impact might be assessed by thousands of conversations and bookmarks in a week.”
Since then, the pace of academic publishing has continued to increase, and altmetrics haven’t managed to supplant the importance of citation-based metrics or disrupt the traditional peer-review process at leading journals. However, the field has steadily grown and gained legitimacy. Some academic libraries have begun using altmetrics to support evaluation and collection development decisions. Others have developed programming and consultation services to help faculty, researchers, and graduate students use altmetrics data to craft narratives around their work in Promotion and Tenure (P&T) dossiers, demonstrate early interest in research to funding bodies, or simply enhance their online presence and connect with other researchers online.
The Scholarly Commons at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) library offers workshops and one-on-one consultation support on a wide range of topics such as copyright law, data management, and digital humanities. About two years ago, the Scholarly Commons’ “Savvy Researcher” workshop series added sessions and comprehensive libguides (ow.ly/S8phz) advising faculty and researchers on ways to enhance their online and social media presence and how to use altmetrics and other bibliometrics to understand the impact of their publications.
Both the workshops and the libguides are designed to help researchers understand altmetrics in context with traditional bibliometrics, such as Impact Factor, as well as other relatively new, citation-based metrics such as Eigenfactor Score, h-index, and g-index.
“We try to talk about the balance between them,” says Merinda Hensley, Scholarly Commons co-coordinator, assistant professor, and instructional services librarian for UIUC. “Keeping everything in perspective is important, but that social media piece in altmetrics is growing.”
When offering a new consultation service or workshop series for faculty and researchers on an emerging topic such as altmetrics, raising awareness and drawing attendance can pose a challenge. But Hensley noted that persistence is crucial if a library wants to build a successful workshop program, even if attendance is initially low.
“There are a lot of libraries that have tried to do open workshops [for faculty and researchers], and they don’t see attendance, so they drop them. I would push back on that…the only way you can have a complete information literacy program today is to offer workshops and online learning along with course-integrated instruction.”
When Urbana-Champaign’s Scholarly Commons began offering its bibliometrics workshop a couple of years ago, Hensley had the benefit of adding the course to the library’s already well-established Savvy Researcher series. But Hensley notes that it took a lot of time and effort to make the series a success.
“We started it eight years ago, and it took about three years before we started seeing consistent attendance,” she says.
Now, the library typically offers one to three 50-minute Savvy Researcher workshops each weekday, covering dozens of different topics over the course of each semester. Time slots vary daily, and courses repeat at different times, in order to minimize scheduling conflicts for interested parties. All courses can be scheduled by request from departments or faculty groups.
The library promotes the workshop schedule on the graduate college’s weekly Listserv and sometimes takes out ads in the campus newspaper. But word of mouth has also become key to the program’s sustainability, and with attendees often suggesting new topics for workshops, the series has built a running dialog with grad students and faculty.
“For me, the workshops are not only about attendance. They tell this narrative to the campus about what librarians do,” Hensley says.
Working directly with departments or administrative offices is another way to highlight the library’s expertise and availability to offer assistance with altmetrics. For example, “faculty do not typically think of the library for support in putting together their dossiers, so it is crucial to partner with units that faculty seek out for this expertise,” Heather Coates, digital scholarship and data management librarian at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), wrote in a recent blog post for altmetric.com (ow.ly/S8qBD) “Luckily for us, a valuable opportunity fell into our laps. In 2012, librarians were invited to work with the [IUPUI] Office of Academic Affairs to support faculty in gathering evidence for P&T dossiers.”
The library began by offering a workshop focused on metrics from subject and citation databases and Google Scholar and introduced attendees to Impactstory, the web-based researcher profile tool developed by Priem and Heather Piwowar. Yet it turned out that faculty were already more interested in altmetrics than the library had assumed. The altmetrics component of the two-hour workshop was expanded in 2013, and since then individual workshops have been further differentiated to concentrate on specific departments and fields.
During these workshops, presenters also emphasize that librarians are available for individual consultations on altmetrics and other topics.
“We offer research consultations for faculty, and that’s an old model in the library, but basically we said, ‘If you have questions, or if you want help exploring how to use altmetrics, how to gather data from these various tools, let us know,’ ” Coates told LJ. “We didn’t get much in the first year and a half, but in the past 18 months or so, we have had faculty coming to us. And it hasn’t just been people [preparing to submit] their dossier within the next six months. There have been people who are early in the pipeline who want to strategize. Part of what we emphasize in the workshops—and I try to carry over into the consults—is strategic planning. You’re going to be producing this work anyway, so let’s be really thoughtful about getting it online somewhere that you can share it, so people can read it, engage with you, and discuss it.”
Point of need
As the scholarly communication librarian for Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), Portland, Robin Champieux has also seen interest in one-on-one altmetrics consultations grow. The aim is to help faculty and researchers “better understand the impact of their researchers and then to plan for more impactful dissemination strategies moving forward,” she says. Demand for consultations does tend to peak when faculty are putting together P&T dossiers. Says Champieux, “What I have found, thus far, is that those conversations around scholarly communication in general, and around altmetrics specifically, tend to be most successful in terms of grabbing their attention when they have a task at hand where that information would be really useful…. When they’re handing in their promotion documents, or thinking about how to write their [National Institutes of Health] bio sketch, or they’re communicating with a funder and want to have an evidence-based story about that funder’s investment” in their research.
Still, she adds, discussions of altmetrics and research impact have also become a relevant component of workshops on broader topics as well.
“We are beginning a year of open science activities on campus that are being funded by a small grant that I have through the National Library of Medicine…and throughout that, a discussion of altmetrics will be included,” Champieux says. “We’re starting to do more work on campus…around data sharing and data management, and oftentimes the utility of altmetrics comes up as well.”
As altmetrics has solidified its foothold in academia, new platforms have emerged to assist in the aggregation and analysis of altmetric data. Notably, Altmetric.com and Plum Analytics, which was acquired by EBSCO in January 2014, both offer a variety of tools for individual researchers, librarians, and other entities.
Plum Analytics in August introduced the PlumX Suite, a set of five products tailored to specific types of individual and institutional users. PlumX Metrics is designed for libraries with institutional repositories; PlumX Dashboards is designed to help faculty and librarians analyze the impact of an individual’s research; PlumX +Grants focuses on grant makers, foundations, and research institutions looking to gain greater insight into the impact and return on investment of grants that they fund or receive; Plum X Benchmarks provides comparisons between institutions based on Plum’s analysis of usage, captures, mentions, social media, and citations; and PlumX Funding Opportunities is designed to help researchers and institutions find funding opportunities from popular funding sources in the United States.
When Plum was founded in 2012, the new company aimed to be as comprehensive as possible with its first product, PlumX, explains cofounder Andrea Michalek. After about 250 institutions were using PlumX in some way, “we took a step back…and asked, ‘How are all these institutions using Plum, and how can we make it simpler for some use cases…and what are the other core uses that we can address better?’”
This differentiation is an indication of ways in which altmetrics are playing an increasing role in research analysis at various levels within universities and in interactions with grant makers and publishers. Michalek says that during the past three years, she’s seen a growing number of scholarly communications librarians, like Champieux, who act as a faculty liaison and help their university analyze and optimize research output.
“They’re looking to bridge the gap between things that are somewhat outside the scope of the library’s traditional purview,” says Michalek. “We tend to bump into these people, because they’re the librarians who are looking at metrics, and are looking at ways to change things.”
Researchers and librarians can get a feel for Altmetric.com’s suite of products by trying the free Altmetric Bookmarklet, which can be installed on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari browsers to display article-level metrics on any journal article visited with the browser. Also, researchers can display similar information on their faculty profile page, for example, with Altmetric.com’s embeddable badges. The bookmarklet and badges both feature the company’s signature donut graphic, which colorfully displays the sources from which an article’s Altmetric Score are derived, such as blue for Twitter, yellow for blogs, and red for mainstream media sources.
Academic librarians can also receive free, individual access to Altmetric.com’s full database via the company’s Altmetric Explorer product, while a web-based Altmetric for Institutions account will enable all librarians, faculty, and students within an institutional IP range to monitor the impact of individual articles or departmental output.
“You can filter by sources of attention and time range or generate a top list of research [from an institution] that has had the most traction online. They can also browse by department or author, or create custom groups, and within those groups they could include not only research from their own institution but also that of any other institution, if they have the [digital object identifier/DOI or PubMed Central ID] for those other articles and research outputs,” says Catherine Williams, the company’s head of marketing and customer relations. The system has been designed to help users understand the context behind any attention that research receives, Williams says.
“We actually show them, on the details page, all of those original mentions [on social media sites, newspapers, government policy documents, etc.] and provide them with the links to click through,” she says. If ten people have tweeted about a recently published paper, for example, a researcher can have their account notify them in real time, or send periodic emails, enabling them to click through and see what is being said about that paper and respond if they wish.
And as the field of altmetrics enters the second half of the decade, its potential for reputation management and community building may be key areas for outreach and scholarly communications librarians to watch. As Hensley from UIUC notes, researchers “want to know who is talking about [their] work. And I think the most important thing that altmetrics gives us—it helps build communities of researchers…. Encouraging researchers to consider that social aspect of their research will only make it stronger.”