Can new measures of research impact replace the impact factor?

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Can new measures of research impact replace the impact factor?

Traditional metrics for measuring scholarly impact, such as the impact factor of the journal, h-index, etc., are familiar to all researchers. Citation-based bibliometrics, although very popular, have been under criticism for various reasons such as being inappropriate in mapping the research impact in fields like the humanities. With the increase in online publishing of scholarly literature, the impact of research has extended beyond formal citations. Scholarly publications are used, discussed, and shared by people through science blogs, social networking sites, online discussion forums, etc. Thus, the traditional measures of citations alone cannot accurately indicate the difference a study has made to the world. This understanding has given rise to alternative metrics, collectively called altmetrics, which can be used to analyze the patterns in which scholarly output is being consumed online.

The term “altmetrics” was coined in 2012 by Jason Priem, a doctoral candidate at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, in a tweet (on Twitter). Altmetrics, the digital footprint of research, are a measure of the number of times a research paper gets cited, tweeted about, liked, shared, bookmarked, downloaded, mentioned, reviewed, or discussed in various online platforms. These data are collected from a wide variety of open-source web services, including open access journals, scholarly citation databases, web-based research sharing services, and social media platforms. Web-based applications such as Altmetric and ImpactStory can help you track the impact of your research. They also offer free widgets that can be embedded into repositories.

The benefits of using altmetrics are as follows:

1. Immediate feedback can be collected

Whereas bibliometrics such as the impact factor of a journal take a long time to be calculated, altmetrics gives researchers a real-time feedback about the impact of their research on their peers.

2. Impact of research on lay readers is also accounted for

Scientific journals are read mostly by researchers, so scientific developments are largely shared only among those who are closely associated with research. However, online discussions on research topics can be followed by students, policy makers, industry representatives, and lay people. Altmetrics measure impact on all these audience segments.

3. Researchers can find collaborators

Since altmetrics help researchers track which fellow researchers show interest in their work, they can be useful for finding potential collaborators and partners.

4. Indication of eventual citation count

Some researchers are of the opinion that altmetrics can give an indication of the eventual citation count of a paper. According to them, a paper that generates interest and excitement among peers and the public is likely to have more citations.

However, using altmetrics can have some disadvantages too:

Some people doubt the reliability of online and social media activity to understand the true impact of research. Further, they are unsure of how tweets (Twitter) and ‘likes’ can be compared in order to calculate altmetrics.

2. There are also concerns that just as citation counts are manipulated by some journals, altmetrics can also be easily tampered with.

3. Altmetrics only consider the number of times an article or blog post has been discussed online, not whether it has been receiving negative or positive attention.  This is a problem that holds for bibliometrics as well.

4. Some people also feel that merely reading or commenting on an interesting article or paper may not always translate into something else like additional research, collaborations, etc. On the other hand, some papers can have a larger impact without being discussed online extensively.                

Altmetrics have definitely generated interest among researchers and publishing professionals, and they are a common topic of discussion at academic conferences in the west. While views on whether altmetrics is reliable are divided, many see great merit in increasing use of altmetrics. As Martijn Roelandse—Publishing Editor for Neuroscience at Springer—says, altmetrics are not here to replace traditional metrics, but serve as an addition to them, as they consider all other measures of impact that have been missed out on because of the excessive focus on citations.

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