SpotOn London 2013: Altmetrics – The Opportunities and the Challenges


Marie Boran is a PhD candidate at the INSIGHT Centre for Data Analytics, the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a part-time science and technology journalist with a background in science communication (MSc Science Comm., Dublin City University).

Marie is organising the What’s your number? – Altmetrics session at this year’s SpotOn London. 

I was at a talk recently on the future of R&D where one of the speakers was introduced as “possibly one of the most cited scientists in Ireland”. This eminent scientist was Prof. Barry Smyth, digital chair of computer science at University College Dublin.

He wasn’t there to discuss his highly cited papers but rather to address the issue of funding opportunities for researchers and research institutes; funding in a time when we’re still recovering from a global recession and when money for “pure research” is not as easy to come by as it was in the past.

When Prof. Smyth was asked for his opinion on attracting funding he said that public outreach was vital and that all scientists should be using social media to talk about their research. It is heartening not only to see senior researchers recognise the importance of social media as a way to reach out to the various publics, but to also make the connection between this and future funding opportunities.*

This is where altmetrics can be useful; providing researchers and research institutes with a framework within which they can evaluate the wider social impact of the scientist and her research outputs. Now we have a more gestalt view of the scientist as she blogs the seeds of a research idea or ongoing lab results or perhaps the summary of her final, peer-reviewed work.

We can see how many are downloading her papers from Mendeley, from what discipline and whether they are post-grads or post-docs. Twitter opens up the conversations flowing around both her and her work. Slideshare offers a neat count of how many are interested in the slides from her talks.

While the de facto measure of research output – the Impact Factor – is a benchmark of journal quality we have seen how open access has expedited the travels of the individual journal article across the web. We should be measuring the impact of an article as it is interacted with online. We should be paying attention to each instance it is read, shared, downloaded and talked about.

What happens in the lab no longer stays in the lab. And these interactions are no longer going unnoticed or uncounted. From’s coloured donut that represents social media attention to PLOS’ article-level metrics and ImpactStory, (developed by Jason Priem and Heather Piowar), we are seeing new scholarly services being built around social media metrics. It’s an exciting time but also a time to standardise and contextualise what these metrics mean and what kind of impact they are measuring.

Our panel this Saturday is titled ‘ will be talking to those who work in the area of altmetrics – Jean Liu of and Martin Fenner of PLOS – as well as Prof. Stephen Curry andProf. David Colquhoun, both of whom have blogged about the limitations and misuse of the Journal Impact Factor. As Curry says of the Journal Impact Factor:

“its time has come and gone,” while adding that “if we tap in online as the community of scientists downloads and flags up the papers of greatest interest to them, we could recover a sense of the worth of the scientific literature (and the efforts behind it) that is factual rather than fictional.”

Jean Liu of says: “Over the last year or so, the idea of altmetrics has entered the scientific community’s consciousness in a big way. Now, many scientists are thinking differently and more holistically about research impact, particularly at the article level.”

“It’s both an exciting and a confusing time, and I think that altmetrics toolmakers are responsible for clearly presenting both the strengths and limitations of the new metrics. At, we always emphasise the importance of the qualitative attention data, because the metrics definitely aren’t the whole story. Users really need to read the conversations that surround the research in order to get an idea of whether or not a paper made an impact on society.”

I agree with Jean; it certainly is both an exciting and confusing time, and as she said to me, SpotOn London 2013 is the right time and place to discuss where altmetrics are now and how they should be used in the future. As a PhD researcher in online scholarly communication I see this panel as an excellent opportunity to set out both the emerging importance of social media metrics and the concerns surrounding their application.

Most importantly we look forward to having discussions with the audience about their view on altmetrics and ideas for improving or adding to the current tools and approaches. We will be setting up a shared Google Doc for this and encourage all SpotOn attendees and those following online to add to it. See you there on Saturday!


* Read this Chronicle piece for a good example of how altmetrics is being used; researcher Stephen Roberts worked his altmetrics into a tenure package alongside his research publications.