Academia has an incentives problem
Today's scientists are recognized not necessarily for doing high-quality research, but for publishing articles in "high impact" journals. ("Impact" being judged by the journal's impact factor.) Important parts of the research process--generating data, writing software, communicating findings as widely as possible--are ignored, abandoned, and hidden from public view because they're not taken into account for tenure & promotion or grants.
In this academic environment--which tends to ignore crucial contributions to research beyond the journal article or book and uses clumsy measures like journal impact factors to approximate the quality of individuals' work--researchers face a difficult decision: do what's best for one's own career or do what will advance one's field (and benefit the larger public). That's where altmetrics comes in.
Altmetrics can reward better research practices
Altmetrics are measures of research impact that supplement citations. They allow researchers to better understand how their work is being discussed, shared, saved, read, and reused by other scholars and the public--thereby broadening the definition of "impact". Altmetrics allow researchers to focus less on what journal they've published in and more on the effects their studies are having on other scholars and the public.
Altmetrics are sourced from many web services: PubMed, Mendeley, Twitter, research blogs, and more. They allow researchers to track not only the impact their papers and books are having, but also if their research software is being downloaded and installed, if their data is being reused, if their presentations are being seen by other researchers beyond the conference walls, and so on. Altmetrics also tend to expose the qualitative data that underlie the numbers, so researchers can see not only how often their work is discussed online, but--more importantly--what others are saying about it.
Altmetrics are somewhat controversial
Though an increasing number of researchers are choosing to use altmetrics to understand their impacts, altmetrics do have some critics. Some traditionalists argue that scholarly impact is the only type of impact worth measuring. Other critics argue that we should do away with impact metrics (including citations and journal impact factors) altogether, as they are too easily misinterpreted and misused.
These arguments are shortsighted. Public engagement is important to many scholars' careers. Funders and university administrators are increasingly requiring researchers to document their outreach and engagement initiatives, as well as the "broader impacts" of their work. Concerns about the misuse of metrics are understandable. But the solution is not to do away with metrics altogether. The solution is to improve the way metrics are used in academia, through careful, impartial outreach and education.
- Like citations, altmetrics are measures of attention, not quality. Altmetrics is still a relatively young field, and research is still needed into the motivations that cause others to bookmark, share, blog about, and otherwise discuss scholarship online. But the inclusion of ratings and peer-review services like F1000, Publons and Pubpeer into altmetrics services means that we now have easy access to what other scholars are actually saying about each others' work, and--in some cases--how they rank that work on its merits. That said, much more research is needed before any accurate measures of quality can be confidently used.
- Altmetrics are meant to supplement citations, not replace them. Citations still hold a place of high esteem in academia, and rightly so. They tell us a lot about the scholarly attention that research has received, more than altmetrics alone ever could. Instead, citations and altmetrics are meant to complement each other, with each measure telling us something about research impact that the other measure cannot.
- Altmetrics can tell you the "Who" and the "What," in addition to the "How many". Altmetrics aggregators offer an easy way to find the all-important contextual information of a mention online. In a single place, they can gather the full-text of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of tweets, blog posts, newspaper articles, and other mentions, shares, and bookmarks your work has received online.
Altmetrics have a number of advantages over citations and citation-based metrics, including:
- Speed of accumulation (citations take months or years to accumulate; altmetrics data can be gathered as-it-happens)
- Breadth of impact (citations only measure scholarly impact; altmetrics measure impact among scholars, the public, policy makers, practitioners, and more)
- Diversity of research products (citations can only measure the impact of articles, books, and sometimes research data; altmetrics can measure the impact of these products plus software, videos, slides, posters, figures, and more)
Altmetrics Content Credit: ImpactStory / CC BY