Altmetrics risk becoming part of problem, not solution, warns academic

Scholar urges delegates at conference in the Netherlands to use measures like Twitter to measure public engagement, rather than turning them into new metrics

October 7, 2015

Five years since its inception, the movement for alternative metrics that reveal impact beyond scholarly citations still has little idea what it is measuring, a scholar has claimed at a conference on the subject.

A manifesto for “altmetrics”, which can include looking at how often a paper is cited on a social network such as Twitter or an academic bookmarking service like Mendeley, was launched by a group of scholars and social media experts five years ago.

But speaking on 7 October at a conference held in Amsterdam, Juan Pablo Alperin, an online publications scholar at Simon Fraser University in Canada, said: “After five years, we still don’t have much of an idea of what we’re measuring.”

All that altmetrics enthusiasts had discovered was that their new metrics gave different results to traditional scholarly citations, Professor Alperin told the 2am:Amsterdam conference on 7 October. “BFD! [big fucking deal!]”, a slide in his presentation exclaimed.

Professor Alperin also voiced concerns that the search for altmetrics, originally designed to find new, more complex ways to judge research, might lead to the creation of a new, all-encompassing metric that merely replaced previous citation-based measurement. “Aren’t we going down the same route?” with altmetrics, he asked.

He added that when some academics now talked to him about altmetrics, their “eyes light up” in the hope that he will explain how to score highly in this new set of metrics, contrary to the original aims of the idea, which was to broaden measures of impact so research was not skewed by things like citations.

Instead, the best way to use altmetrics was to find out who beyond the academy was engaging with research, he said. His Twitter-based survey of discussions about Brazilian science had revealed that more than a third of those tweeting papers were not academics, Professor Alperin said.

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