Altmetrics: Listening and Giving Voice to Ideas with Social Media Data

After a warm welcome from Philip Mai, Director of Business and Communications at Ryerson Social Media Lab and Mike Taylor, Head of Metrics Development at Digital Science, the 4th Altmetrics Conference was officially underway! We’d all gathered in Toronto in the beautiful venue of the Sears Atrium for two days of discussion and debate on all things altmetrics.

Kicking things off was keynote speaker Dr Anatoliy Gruzd, Canada Research Chair in Social Media Data Stewardship, Associate Professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, and Director of Research at the Ryerson University Social Media Lab – our generous hosts for this year’s conference.

Anatoliy began by sharing the link to the online version of his slides – a true social networker!

He then gave us a brief introduction via a 2011 study conducted by his lab, which asked whether altmetrics should be used in tenure and promotion. The answers were mixed!

6 years later, Anatoliy says he has seen attitudes change. Researchers are now actively sharing the record of their altmetrics activity with others on twitter, and see it as a useful way of reporting on the visibility of their work.

That’s not to say there isn’t still a healthy amount of skepticism – a nod to ‘spam’ tweets for one paper highlights still that no metric can be perfect.

Antoliy then moved on to a discussion of the evolution he’s seen in scholarly communication channels – citing work done in his lab to compare letters of a mining engineer to a modern twitter network analysis. The study showed that in one month the tweeting achieved a similar reach to 9 months worth of letter writing, highlighting just one advance that social media allows us: the efficiency and ease of spreading a message.

Another previously conducted survey showed that academics used multiple platforms to communicate their research. Anatoliy noted that over time although the platforms they use may change, the reasons for doing so do not; keeping up to date, following the work of others, communicating with others in a given field.

But it’s not just academics who talk about research, Analotliy pointed out; there are unexpected receptor communities who are also engaging in significant ways online.

From here Analtoliy moved on to consider how the concept of altmetrics has evolved – recognising that although it has not always been plain sailing there is a real opportunity to remind ourselves that it’s important to understand and keep in mind what we are measuring, and why. Research on altmetrics has grown measurably in the last 5 years – and data shows that although this is increasing altmetrics are still a young field (which, Anatoliy joked, makes it easy to do a literature review!)

Looking at the altmetrics space we can factor in 3 elements: data providers, aggregators, the metrics themselves.

Anatoliy highlighted that although there is already lot of data there are still some key players who are not really part of the space – including sites like ResearchGate and – where a lot of scholarly activity takes place.

Thanks in part to the recent NISO standards project, aggregators now have a renewed focus on transparency, replicability and accuracy in the data they provide.

Last come the metrics themselves – where Anatoliy reinforced the idea that the basic aggregated numbers give us an idea of interest levels, but that we continually need to dig beyond those to see who is interested, and why. What he finds most interesting are the opportunities to develop metrics based on social network analysis. He proposed, as an example, that it is possible to determine influential bloggers based on network analysis. This idea does not come without challenges – for example that the most influential blogs are written by patents who tend to not cite the original literature.

Anatoliy began to wrap up his talk by discussing the potential roadblocks that altmetrics still faces: the difficulties of detecting social bots, of tracking outputs without identifiers, and of the complexities of relying on 3rd party data providers.

Ending on a positive note, Anatoliy announced that he is looking forward to see how we make the most of the opportunities and tackle some of the challenges!