This is a guest blog post written by Mads Bomholt, Customer Support and Data Coordinator at Altmetric. Mads is also currently working towards a PhD in 19th Century Imperialism at King’s College London.
Scholars working in the humanities and social sciences are fundamentally changing their research practices to be more compatible with the behaviours which technology is imposing on us privately, socially and professionally. Being a PhD student in history I started reflecting how this is affecting my research and, possibly, a future career as an academic in the humanities.
In this blog post I am going to talk about how altmetrics feed into the wider developments of what is now termed ‘Digital Humanities’, as well as considering how they may be used in historical research now and in the future.
Digital Humanities can be defined as the application of computer based technology in humanities and social sciences research. Albeit a relatively new field, it has nevertheless seen whole departments being established at distinguished institutions including University College London, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Stanford University and my own; King’s College London.
Since 2000, the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London has been involved in generating more than £17 million in research income , giving an indication of how seriously these developments are going to affect humanities in the future.
Archives all over the world have digitized their databases, and sometimes even source material. The prime example of this is the British Library’s online Newspaper archive, which incorporates almost all published newspapers in Britain since January 1, 1710.
The process of digitizing has not been without difficulties. Handwritten sources in particular have meant that some of the digitization is either incomplete or ambiguous, and in cases even facetious. For instance, in digitizing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the old writing of the letter ‘f’, looks like a contemporary ‘s’ led to some rather erotic alterations of the classical story. Suddenly, ‘Death had not “suck’d” the honey of thy breath’, but something far more inappropriate starting with ‘f’ .
Altmetrics feed into this process too. I asked myself the question: how could I as a PhD student in history use altmetrics? Being a slave to the notion that ‘those who forget historiography are doomed to republish it’ , I have been through numerous articles and books addressing relevant (and irrelevant) issues to my thesis. Each time I have to assess and evaluate the piece; is it worth including? Does it need to be discussed in the text or simply referred to?
[altmetric doi=”10.1111/j.1468-0289.1953.tb01482.x” float=”right”]
Here altmetrics enter the frame, at least at the article level. By finding which articles on a given subject get the most attention I can easily create a list of articles that are necessary to at least have a look at. Of course, attention is not the same as quality – nor relevance; if I were to write on a topic even remotely related to British Imperialism in the mid-19th century without mentioning Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher’s article, Imperialism of Free Trade (published in 1953 and currently showing an Altmetric score of 1), I would probably not pass the course.
Altmetric (my altmetrics provider of choice!) does not consistently track mentions made before 2011, and it appears at the moment that most historical journal articles are not being discussed much on social platforms. Such articles rarely spark much media attention compared to, for example, those published in medicine and astronomy. The lack of past data means that older yet still significant articles, such as the one above, are somewhat left out.
Whilst they may not be frequently applicable in the humanities and social sciences now, the changes that are developing within these fields now will eventually demand the implementation of more innovative approaches in order to benefit and improve the efficiency of research.
Altmetrics promise to be a powerful tool for future publications and those, including myself, who need to go through a vast historiography.
Before too long there will undoubtedly be social historians and other researchers who will look at the historical and social implications of digitalization and, of course, the World Wide Web. As a field concerned with social media and other online content as a measure of societal impact, altmetrics will likely demand significant attention from historians and other humanities and social science scholars for years to come.
2. see blog.librarything.com/thingology/2010/12/
3. Paul K Macdonald Those Who Forget Historiography Are Doomed to Republish It: Empire, Imperialism and Contemporary Debates about American Power in Review of International Studies vol. 35, No.1, 2009 pp. 45-67 – a nice pun on the phrase ‘He who doesn’t know history is dommed to repeat it’