Altmetric Blog

A take on altmetrics and their role in the changing scholarly landscape

Sarah Condon, 18th June 2020

This blog is based on an interview with Gemma Derrick, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.  

Metrics, and the responsible use of them, remains a hot topic for many institutions, particularly those in the UK who have been gearing up for their REF submissions. 

This and other challenges were the focus of discussion at a recent Lis-bibliometrics event held at the University of Manchester earlier in 2020. 

We caught up with one of the presenters from the day, Gemma Derrick, to get her take on altmetrics and their role in the changing scholarly landscape. 

First steps into altmetrics

Gemma’s journey has taken her from medical training to a PhD that focussed on science communication in research evaluation systems, Gemma is keen to bridge the gap between the STEM experience and social science perspective. It’s this curiosity that led Gemma to her current role; upon learning that such data was available from the scientists around her, Gemma began to look into the metrics and information relating to the work of the scientists around her.

The growth of the field of altmetrics meant that suddenly the data required to gather a broader picture of the influence of a piece of research was more accessible than ever before. This, Gemma says, coupled with increased demands for researchers to quantify research outputs, means that researchers like herself are always looking for new ways to demonstrate the outcomes of their work. 

Their role in the scholarly ecosystem

Altmetrics play an interesting role in our evolving academic landscape. Current assessment methods, Gemma notes, are ‘as much an assessment of how you fit a pre-determined mold as much as/more than how valuable your research actually is”.

Altmetrics, and indeed any form of alternative insights researchers can use to tell the story of their work, play an important equity and social justice role. 

“Just as with traditional metrics, such as citations, the value of a piece of research isn’t about putting it into one number and making a comparison, it’s more about offering a fuller picture of the research.” 

Should we be trying to measure the outcomes of research at all?

‘Absolutely, that’s a given’ said Gemma, without any hesitation. She went on; “Dissemination is the key. We are all publicly funded one way or another – researchers have a responsibility to disseminate. Not all research has the same value – the more we share and the more we have access to info to help us determine if it’s good quality, important or not is valuable.”

Introducing altmetrics to others 

Noting that she is fortunate to be in both a leadership role within her institution, and a mentorship role for young researchers, Gemma says she has seen how they regularly undersell how excellent they are; the one thing standing in the way is not a measure of quality, but their own self-belief. 

Altmetrics can be a useful tool for boosting their confidence – they provide evidence to show them where their work is being discussed and used globally; numbers that demonstrate they are really making a difference, being noticed.  

“Not having used something before is not a reason they shouldn’t be used in future”

For all researchers, but perhaps particularly those who are open to using social media, making a larger proportion of people aware of their work and open to their arguments is valuable. What’s critical is that this is not about comparing yourself to someone more experienced or more established – it’s about making these emerging researchers realise they are having an impact they likely didn’t realise they were before. 

“Using the same metrics and methods of evaluation all the time is just reinforcing the hierarchy, again and again”

As for the people who are reluctant to consider or give weight to altmetrics? “Not having used something before is not a reason they shouldn’t be used in future.  The question should be on how to use them” says Gemma. “Within academia, there are lots of power relationships going on. Using the same metrics and methods of evaluation all the time is just reinforcing the hierarchy, again and again. Research and researchers come in many different guises – rewarding only one and neglecting these others is not a good way to do things.”

Future developments

Altmetrics and other data that can help us understand the dissemination and further use of research are increasing exponentially. That said, “developing and implementing the use of those metrics are two different things. It’s really important that we don’t see a metric as evidence of actual change, e.g. patent citation as societal impact – I don’t think such a measure exists. You need then to go on and show how it was used in that patent and what difference it actually made – something I think is impossible to quantify, really.”

For those who are less familiar with altmetrics (or metrics) and wondering where to start, Gemma encourages starting with yourself, or a researcher you know well. Start looking at the data and consider what it’s telling you, and how that compares with your previous perceptions and then question yourself, your assumptions and your biases about what is really valuable to you as a researcher, and what is not. 

Develop a critical interest in these metrics and start to understand how they can be used in different ways – and what they are communicating to the world about you and your research. 

For the full article, please view it here.

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