Altmetric Blog

Unwanted attention?

Cat Williams, 14th November 2014

Articles and other research outputs don’t always get attention for the reasons we might first assume. There’s a reason you shouldn’t ever rely on numbers alone…

This was demonstrated in spectacular form once again this week when the Twittersphere jumped on a recent article that contained a rather unfortunate error – an offhand author comment asking “should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here”?

The article got a lot of attention – it is now one of the most popular items we’ve picked up mentions for this week (here’s another), rocketing to near the top of the rankings for the journal as the error was shared.

Indicators like the attention score we use reflect the fact that lots of people were talking about the article but not that the attention was, and here we’re just guessing, probably unwanted.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen cases like this. As you would expect articles get attention for all sorts of reasons which aren’t just to do with the quality of the research.

A few favourite examples we’ve come across over the years include this paper authored by a Mr Taco B. Monster – currently claiming an Altmetric score of 485, with almost 600 mentions to date, and also brought to our attention this week was the tale of the disappearing teaspoons – which is still causing quite a stir ten years after it was first published:


Flawed Science
A more serious example of attracting attention for all the wrong reasons which comes to mind is in relation to this article published in Science in 2011. The researchers suggested that a type of bacteria could use arsenic, as opposed to the phosphorus used by all other life on the planet, to generate DNA. The article initially received a huge amount of press attention but other scientists quickly pointed out errors – you can dive into some of the relevant mentions by looking at the Altmetric details page


Similarly, a suggestion that neutrinos may have been measured as travelling faster than the speed of light did not stand up to further scrutiny, although the truth was only uncovered months later following numerous (successful, but flawed) re-tests.



Amongst the blogs, news outlets, general public and other scientists questioning the results coming out of CERN, this article, published just weeks after the original data was made available, generated some impressive altmetrics of its own, most likely due to its humorous abstract. 


Playing politics
Typically we’ll also see a high volume of attention around research that is particularly topical or controversial at the time. An article published in the Lancet this year which examined the privatisation of the NHS in Scotland with relation to a yes or a no vote in the recent referendum received a very high volume of tweets as those in the ‘yes’ campaign shared it to encourage their followers to vote in favour of independence:

We’ll be releasing our Top 100 most mentioned articles for 2014 in a couple of weeks (you can see the results for 2013 here) – it’ll be interesting to explore why and how those that make the list caught the public and academic imagination this year.

11 Responses to “Unwanted attention?”

Altmetric (@altmetric)
November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

Disappearing teaspoons, offhand author comments, witty abstracts. The unusual reasons research attracts attention:

November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

What are Altmetrics good for ??

Altmetric (@altmetric)
November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

The unusual reasons research attracts attention: #altmetrics

Stacy Konkiel
November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

Great post, Cat! The implication of linking altmetrics to the "crappy Gabor paper" study is that altmetrics aren't doing a good job, and yet citations suffer from the same problem. For example, the "arsenic life" paper has over 300 citations to date [1], many of which point out the major flaws in the study.

To rule out altmetrics--or citation metrics--entirely is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, IMHO. We can still uncover useful instances of attention, reuse, commentary, and so on that papers have received thanks to both altmetrics and citations.



November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

when numbers mislead MT @altmetric: “crappy Gabor paper” paper, studies that garner unwanted attention #altmetrics

Ben McLeish (@BenMcLeish)
November 14, 2014 at 12:00 am

Unwanted attention? - Some #altmetrics attention tells a very different story.

Tavish Bell (@TavishBell)
November 15, 2014 at 12:00 am

#Research doesn't always get attention for the reasons we might assume. Why you shouldn't rely on numbers alone:

Lou Woodley (@LouWoodley)
November 15, 2014 at 12:00 am

Unwanted attention - a look at some of the reasons papers may have high @altmetric scores

Altmetric Top 100 2014 |
December 11, 2014 at 12:00 am

[…] a bit of light relief and is quickly distributed. Similarly, a case of unfortunate author error (which we discussed in more detail here) is still generating new attention online now, months after publication and weeks after the error […]

[…] of the increased social media attention the article received, its altmetrics shot through the roof, causing cynics to point out that altmetrics must be flawed because they’re measuring the […]

[…] an article, rather than just flat numbers devoid of detail. We have previously blogged about articles gaining unwanted attention, demonstrating how high Altmetric scores don’t confer higher quality to a piece of research; in […]

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