Altmetric Blog

Altmetrics for Anthropology: a new approach

Cat Williams, 15th March 2016

Earlier this month Professor Rob Borofsky of the Center for a Public Anthropology at the Hawaii Pacific University launched a brand new site that gives some fascinating insights into the online attention that anthropological research receives in blogs, the mainstream media, and public policy documents. 

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We were really excited to see this new tool go live – the site it it’s entirety was built by Rob, and Altmetric data is fed in via API. We caught up with him to learn more about what his goals for the project are, and what inspired him to get started.

headshotHi Rob! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. First off, could you tell us a bit about your role, and how you first came across altmetrics? 

I am the Director of the Center for a Public Anthropology, Editor for the California Series in Public Anthropology and a Professor at Hawaii Pacific University. One of the Center’s projects is to draw more academics, and especially anthropologists, into engaging with public concerns that enhance  the broader social good instead, as is often the case, of focusing on narrow, academic concerns mostly relevant to a small coterie of colleagues. I came across Altmetrics through an article in The Economist entitled “Lighten our darkness” about the ongoing changes in academic publishing (Dec. 6, 2014). It made reference to Digital Science. When I looked up Digital Science on the Internet, I saw Altmetric was one of Digital Sciences’ products. I became intrigued with what Altmetric did and whether or not it might prove relevant to the Center’s concerns.

The new site looks great, could you tell us a bit about what motivated you to build it? 

This is the third website built that relates to the Center’s focus on drawing academics, and especially anthropologists, into addressing public problems in more public ways. The first I built myself in 2006. It involved a survey that assessed which anthropology departments appeared more “socially engaged” based on their programs and faculty specialties. While over 40% of department based anthropologists participated in the survey – a comparatively high number – the project had limited impact on the discipline’s priorities.

The second website Adaptium Technology built for the Center in 2013. This assessed the degree to which faculty in various social science departments (i.e. anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology) were cited in the Google News Archive. The goal was to offer a reference point for assessing a faculty member’s impact beyond that provided by Google Scholar and Social Science Citation Index (which as you know focus on academics citing academic articles). The ranking of departments by their Google News Archive citations was compared with the NSF funding each department received. I was interested in the degree to which departments receiving NSF funding “gave back” to the broader society – as stipulated by the 2007 America Competes Act of 2007. (The Act’s full name is The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act of 2007.) Unfortunately, soon after the project began, the Google News Archive went offline for a lengthy update making the project impossible to continue. 


“It adds credibility to a list of publications by emphasizing which ones have gained attention from the broader society over and above a coterie of colleagues.”


The current website was built by Adaptium Technology in 2015 (see It is the most sophisticated of the three efforts. Hopefully, it will also prove to be the most effective. 

How do you anticipate (or hope) that this tool will be received by the Anthropology community? How would you like to see people using it? 

I would like administrators and faculty to use this website in at least four ways.  
First, I hope they will use it as a way to highlight individual faculty who gain public attention for their publications. (I assume, that in gaining public attention, the articles are generally addressing public concerns.) Most universities emphasize the importance of serving the public good in their mission statements and receive considerable funding to support such efforts. The website offers one way for universities to highlight how its faculty are serving the public good.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 09.47.16Second, the website can be used by faculty members in applying for grants. Funding organizations such as NSF, are concerned not only with how an applicant’s research enhances a discipline but also with how the research benefits the broader society. The website’s data can strengthen a grant application because it provides concrete data on the degree to which an applicant’s earlier publications have gained public attention.

Third, it can prove a valuable addition to CVs. It adds credibility to a list of publications by emphasizing which ones have gained attention from the broader society over and above a coterie of colleagues.

Fourth, I hope administrators and faculty will develop innovative ways for using the website’s data. Faculty seem to enjoy exploring which publications are highlighted. Perhaps, some might investigate exactly what details in which publications at what schools attract public attention and which do not.

Building it must’ve been a big project! Looking back on the process, how would you say you found it? Is there anything that was particularly easy or more difficult? 

I would mention two points.  First, having worked on the overall project for a number of years, I had a sense of how I might use the Altmetric data.  Still, constructing the website took several months because I needed to explore how faculty and administrators might wish to use such data.

Second, Adaptium Technology is quite skilled in building complex websites.  With their help, I was able to merge Altmetric’s API with my own data – a fairly complicated process. Left to my own devices, I would certainly have failed.

Was there anything interesting you uncovered in the altmetrics data when pulling the site together? 

Yes. While roughly 2/3rds of American anthropologists specialize in cultural anthropology, only perhaps 1/3rd of the articles noted on the website are from this specialty. Physical anthropologists and archeologists publish the majority of publications gaining public attention. The general public finds all three specialties interesting. But, having a smaller number of disciplinary journals to publish in, physical anthropologists and archeologists are forced to publish in interdisciplinary journals. These journals – being outside the discipline – attract more media attention. The discipline’s culturally oriented journals appear focused on attracting the attention of cultural anthropologists.  


“The website offers one way for universities to highlight how its faculty are serving the public good.”


I am also pleased by the degree to which faculty seem to enjoy exploring the website. Some have spent considerable time on it. Given this reaction, I am hopeful it will indeed draw anthropologists into engaging more with public concerns and, in doing so, be more rewarded for such efforts than in the past. Sometimes one becomes a bit “jaded” working on a project for a long time. It is nice to have an upbeat sense of hope given the power of Altmetric’s metrics.  

You launched a few weeks ago – has there been any user feedback so far that you’re able to share with us? 

I would say the overall reaction is fairly positive. In an email blast announcing the project to roughly 4,000 anthropologists, roughly 25% opened the email.  Many, over the next several days, explored the website in detail.  


“The two words I frequently hear are fantastic and important.”


The two words I frequently hear are fantastic and important. Fantastic refers to having such data available. This may be the first time such information has been available to anthropologists. Important refers to the project’s goal of highlighting and rewarding faculty for publications that attract public attention. The website offers important metrics that faculty can use in their promotion and funding applications. Many faculty have desired such metrics for some time.

And lastly, what do you hope this project will achieve over the next year? How will you know if it’s been a success? 

Having worked on broadening the intellectual focii of anthropologists for many years – both through the Center and the California Series in Public Anthropology – it is fair to say I am familiar with the difficulties in encouraging anthropologists to produce publications that attract the broader society’s attention. Because the website and Altmetric, more generally, provide a clear set of metrics for assessing the public attention a publication receives, it is not unreasonable to hope that many anthropologists will use the website to document the broader impact of their publications.  

Ideally, they will use the website’s metrics in their CVs as well as funding and promotion applications to demonstrate the importance of their publications. The website shows which publications reach beyond the discipline’s normal “echo chambers” – the back and forth conversations among a limited coterie of colleagues. Clear proof of success will be if (a) administrators and faculty pay more attention to these metrics, (b) faculty include them in their CVs, and (c) the faculty who use them are more successful in their funding and promotion applications vis-à-vis those who do not.    

Want to know more?

You can explore the site now – and register today to join us for an upcoming webinar where Rob will give an overview of the project and how he is seeing it impact on the Anthropological community:

Altmetrics and anthropology: using the Altmetric API to track anthropological articles – 5pm GMT/11am MST, March 24





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