By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian
Altmetric, the company, has been in existence for ten years now. The company has grown, and to get the view from company officials themselves, we submitted questions and various company officials responded to give us an inside look at Altmetric today – and what we might expect in the future.
NKH: Altmetric’s 10th anniversary – Did you ever imagine the growth, acceptance and example that Altmetric has given the world? Are you surprised by the global excitement/involvement? Or the rather swift growth?
Patty Smith (Senior Engagement Manager): “I was introduced to altmetrics when I was working as a Research Impact librarian, and I was immediately curious and excited about these new metrics. So, no, I’m not surprised that others have felt the same way! Globally, I think it is interesting to see how different regions have adopted altmetrics into their workflows at different speeds. For example, the UK, Netherlands, and Australia were all quite swift to embrace altmetrics, perhaps due in part to each of these countries having a national research evaluation exercise where demonstrating societal impact of research is essential.”
NKH: How did you get involved with this? What needs and potentials did you see for alternative metrics in science?
Patty Smith: “Before joining Altmetric in 2019, I worked for over 5 years as a librarian in both hospital and academic environments, where I developed a passion for science communication and helping others tell their science stories. I started by learning about bibliometrics, but then altmetrics piqued my interest and I eventually made the jump to working at Altmetric! I think altmetrics have the potential to help tell meaningful stories of both real-world impact and academic impact in the sciences, but also in other disciplines as well. One hurdle is getting people to look beyond the Altmetric Attention Score, which is simply an indicator of the volume of attention a research output has received. The real gems lie in what people are actually saying about the research, be it positive or negative. But, of course, people do have an interest in the numbers, so I do see the potential for the creation of some sort of field-normalized alternative metric. That would be exciting!”
Liesa Ross (Director of Market Development): “Back in 2012-2016, I was a senior marketing manager for seven materials science journals published by one of the top US scientific publishers. During that time, the publisher was having internal conversations about the pros, cons, and validity of adding altmetrics to article pages… due to rising interest from more progressive journal editors. I remember a few of my editors were intrigued by the growing popularity of Google Scholar metrics, asking if we should be promoting more metrics than impact factor and citations. There were mixed reviews, at all levels, at the time. However, no one could ignore the rise in online conversations about research on social media. Editors were even engaging more themselves with science communities via social media to attract younger reader/author engagement.”
NKH: Social media have exploded in the past ten years. Today we have multimillionaire teen ‘influencers’ as well as bots and efforts. Facebook is Facebook, Instagram is Instagram. Can social media ever be ‘tamed,’ restrained or managed in a way that makes scholars more comfortable using social media for exploring topics for research purposes beyond trending?
Stacy Konkiel (Director of Research Relations): “I do worry about how social media is being used to spread disinformation, and in some cases to ‘weaponize’ research by willfully promoting retracted studies or misrepresent results. That’s why it’s so important that we look beyond altmetric counts, to see what’s actually being said about research and who’s saying it.”
Patty Smith: “Social media is an important part of the dissemination process for many scholars already, but it is a bit intimidating at the outset, partly because there is a lot of strategy involved e.g. using appropriate hashtags, identifying bots, following relevant accounts, linking to research in the correct way, etc. It seems that perhaps there is a need for “social media literacy” training! The misrepresentation or misuse of research on social media is definitely a concern, which again highlights the importance of looking at what people are saying about research and who is saying it instead of just relying on the numbers. I do think there is an opportunity for labeling or flagging things on social media, e.g. flagging retracted papers or flagging a controversial Twitter account. But whose role is it to flag items? Who determines what is controversial? What if someone’s account or paper is mistakenly flagged? These are all important questions to consider!”
Liesa Ross: “Like it or not, Baby Boomer-age researchers will have to retire in large groups some day. The younger scholars, especially those who will have survived the 2020 (and counting) pandemic see the benefit of having the freedom and access to collaborate and discuss via social networks. Now with travel and border restrictions, it’s essential to keep research moving forward. I don’t think there’s any true option to restrain online science conversations. Communities and consequences won’t tolerate it. I do, however, know there’s a need for more consistent management between service providers of those conversations and the visibility and reporting of them. When you think about it, to be part of a research output’s conversation, how many platforms would you need to have an account for?”
NKH: Because of their widespread use, social media have been at the heart of methodological discussions over the past years, including both their potential (e.g., speed, broadness) and their shortcomings (e.g., data quality, zero-inflated data). How is that changing? Is the nature of social media an obstacle to move altmetrics forward, or are there other issues at play?
Stacy Konkiel: “I’ve always been a bit disappointed at the focus upon the social media aspect of altmetrics. There is such rich, important altmetrics data that’s being missed in those conversations (e.g. public policy and expert recommendations). I also think the focus on social media has made it easy for traditionalists to dismiss altmetrics as frivolous (even though important research-related conversations take place on social media all the time). I’m hopeful that as more studies based on Altmetric data start to focus on non-social media sources, we’ll see the conversation begin to change.”
Patty Smith: “I agree with Stacy’s response to this–there is so much more to altmetrics than just social media! I think social media is a great tool for disseminating research and is a great way to help build your online presence, and you can discover some really cool interactions with research on social media. But there is still a misconception for some that altmetrics = social media metrics, when altmetrics offer so much more. In my opinion, the most popular attention sources that we track at Altmetric are policy, patents, and mass media. That is, people tend to use these sources most frequently when telling stories of their research impact. So, yes, if folks don’t look beyond social media, then perhaps it does pose a barrier to moving altmetrics forward.”
Liesa Ross: “From my perspective, social media is evolving rapidly enough–taking on many forms–that it can be a conduit to help move altmetrics forward. Research is global and social media platform engagement can help make sure the earth stays small and round—allowing discussions to always be happening throughout the life of research vs. live and die with conference proceedings or a past journal issue. All of these venues for conversation are essential. The altmetrics from social media engagement can help prove when research is still very much alive and has traveled farther than otherwise known. Altmetrics make research more cyclical sooner.”
NKH: To me, this is what I see is the development of what I’d call altmetrics 2.0. Would you agree that we seem to be entering a new phase of our altmetric journey?
Patty Smith: “In my view, altmetrics 2.0 will involve making the data easier to understand for more people. At Altmetric, we’ve tracked over 155 million mentions of research online. The data and insights are there for those with the time and skills to analyze it, but it would be great if we could make it easier for more people to understand the data quickly. How can we accomplish this? Well, the first step is certainly involving the altmetrics community and having conversations about what will be most useful. Do people want sentiment analysis? Do people want field-normalized altmetrics? Only time will tell!”
NKH: In one of Bornmann’s 2020 collaborative research articles, he and colleagues admitted that “the very emergence of social media, for example, has heralded a new age for the public dissemination of scientific knowledge. It therefore comes as no surprise that ‘altmetrics,’ an endeavor to quantitatively represent mentions and interactions on social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, have been proposed as a means to evaluate the societal impact of research ex post. Yet despite the consensus over their potential for impact assessment, the jury is still out as to what kind of impact altmetrics scores actually reflect.” How do you think this might change? How strong is the resistance by academics as well as by administrators/institutions?
Stacy Konkiel: “With continued study of altmetrics data—especially around ‘real world impact’ questions—we’ll get closer to understanding what altmetrics reflect, beyond simple ‘engagement’ or ‘attention’. One theoretical framework that suggests a sound approach is the “acts” theory proposed by Haustein et al. In fairness, there’s still no consensus as to how citations should be interpreted regarding impact. Many theories abound and that’s for a fairly homogenous type of data, which has existed for decades! With the heterogeneity of altmetrics data, I think we’ll soon find evidence that they reflect a variety of different kinds of societal impact.”
Patty Smith: “To put it bluntly, Altmetric Attention Scores alone don’t reflect any sort of impact. They’re simply an indicator of the volume of attention a research output has received online. The same goes for citations–just because something is highly cited, it doesn’t mean it is for a positive reason. So, naturally, some academics are wary because they don’t want to be asked to provide yet another number to be judged on. That’s why we must look beyond the numbers to be able to demonstrate actual research impact. Is it easier to sum things up with a single number? Certainly. But a number doesn’t tell the whole story. And that’s why I love altmetrics: they offer you the opportunity to look beyond the numbers to tell your story. Altmetrics are not perfect, and I do think qualitative analysis needs to be faster and easier, but I’m confident the field of altmetrics will continue growing and developing to improve this process.”
NKH: To me this is an incredibly exhilarating time. It also shows not only a strong international effort to create a ‘new science’ that might open new doors to not only supporting research, but develop new methodologies, collaborative endeavours and improve the support and understanding and progress of science across the globe for the future. Did you expect anything like this when you started out?
Stacy Konkiel: “I’d always imagined altmetrics as a means for researchers to tell their own stories about meaningful, impactful research. So it’s pretty incredible to see how many creative ways altmetrics are now being used, by organizations as diverse as Nature, the CDC, and pharmaceutical companies!”
Patty Smith: “Now that I work at Altmetric and engage with all of our customers around the world, I’m surprised by all of the cool ways people use this data that I never expected. I see researchers doing amazing analyses of the data, publishers using altmetrics to inform future scope decisions, pharmaceutical companies tracking attention to clinical trials, and funders using altmetrics to track the real-world impact of research they fund. There is a lot you can do with the data that I never imagined!”
NKH: And, even if altmetrics proves not to be the hoped-for 100% solution, the high degree of international cooperation, innovative research, and open questioning that is apparent in research articles – and the altmetrics movement – is very refreshing. It’s as if to say: “No, we don’t have all the answers, but we won’t stop looking!” Would you agree?
Stacy Konkiel: “The altmetrics movement was built on challenging the status quo, and that spirit is embodied everywhere: each researcher who questions assumptions about prestige and ‘impact’, every new altmetrics startup, and every organization that’s open-minded enough to rethink how to better align their evaluation practices with their values.”
Patty Smith: “Yes, obviously the altmetrics movement has come a long way in the last 10 years, but I’m excited to see what the next 10 years bring! There is still so much more to be done, but this community is curious, there are many possibilities, and I’m sure people will keep pushing the status quo.”
Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.