What do altmetrics tell us about ourselves?

What do the greatest hits on Altmetric.com tell us about ourselves? Matthew Thakur from the Wellcome Trust’s Insight & Analysis team shares 4 things they’ve learned tracking their funding portfolio using the Altmetric Explorer.

1 Increasingly, The News is science news

Stories like:

“Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak”

“Zika virus in the Americas: Early epidemiological and genetic findings”

“Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa – The First 9 Months of the Epidemic and Forward Projections.”

remind us that many of the biggest news stories of recent years were driven and shaped by science. Here science wasn’t in a weekly supplement or tucked away just before the sport, but splashed all over the front page. The ongoing Zika outbreak highlights the influential role that researchers and research organisations can have in these situations – by providing independent, trusted sources of information and knowing where to push for coordinated action such as data-sharing agreements. This does also highlight a limitation of the scholarly web – say a researcher we fund produces the most widely-shared pre-publication dataset mapping the current distribution of the outbreak, or a widely-accessed lay audience explainer. This is a great example of the wider impact of research beyond citations – but I’m not sure the true extent of it would be clear from the material’s Altmetric score (if it had one). Similarly, any public engagement a researcher does that doesn’t have a DOI – on radio, TV, or at science festivals, for example – remains off the altmetrics radar at present. It’s a shame, as tracking the reach, engagement or attention these activities achieve could be really valuable.

2 Sometimes, science gets political

Articles with even a whiff of controversy get picked up in conversations a lot. Titles like:

“Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK”

“‘First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health?”

“The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases”

bring science to bear on the hot domestic political issues of the moment in the UK, or put the science community itself under scrutiny. Funders could use this information to identify researchers who might be needing a little extra help with handling media interest or any policy implications of their work. The popularity of articles about the scientific community ( also see – “Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience”) does lead to some head-scratching when interpreting Altmetrics scores – are they reflections of the reach articles achieve beyond the scientific community, in regular news outlets and social media streams, or are they reflections of buzz within the community? Clearly, both can be true, although it can be hard to tell at a glance which articles are reaching which communities at the moment. The scientific community is much more likely to make Altmetrics’ job easier by linking back to or acknowledging source material – could the fact that indexing works better on mentions like these explain the relatively high prominence of scientific-community stories?

3 People are most interested in their own health.

Of the top 25 most-attended objects on the Altmetric Explorer with a Wellcome-funded tag, only 5 fall into the category of ‘basic science’. The rest are articles like these:

“Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014”

“Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age”

“Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study”

The not-exactly-subtle thread running through the most popular work is insight into trends in health, and how we can change our behaviour to improve our health or the health of those close to us. This is science at its broadest, and the accessibility of this work means it receives very wide coverage. The Wellcome Trust Monitor, a nationwide survey of public attitudes to science and medical research in the UK we run every few years, confirms that one of the main drivers of public interest in science is wanting to hear about research that is personally relevant. The combination of attitude surveys like the Monitor with data from sources like the Altmetric Explorer should provide a rich resource for those seeking to understand and improve public engagement with science.

4 Maybe the sharing is the story?

My milkshake brings all the readers to the blog.

By krzyboy2o (milkshake anyone? Uploaded by JohnnyMrNinja) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The broad threads of most-shared stories I identified above are the health insight, the controversy stoker and the global news item. The last thread (and one that most closely reflects the large basic science part of our portfolio) is illustrated by articles like these:

“Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly”

“Total Synthesis of a Functional Designer Eukaryotic Chromosome.”

“Towards practical, high-capacity, low-maintenance information storage in synthesized DNA”

I’ll call these the ‘next big things’. They’re all technically focussed pieces of work that introduce futuristic techniques for the first time in a blaze of optimism. What I find interestingabout these stories is that there are lots of similar technical breakthroughs happening all over the place most of the time, when you take science as a whole. How do a handful rise to the top of the pile? I suspect the virulence of individual university press offices is part of the answer, together with how easy the core concept of the innovation is to grasp (though I suspect not all of the 1500 people who tweeted about this paper read it).

Actually, that last point is a big one, and brings us to the big idea linking these themes: I propose that many of the people sharing this content haven’t actually read it – because it’s impenetrably technical or behind a paywall, or they simply didn’t have time. In which case – seeing what gets shared the most might tell us a lot more about the psychology of the sharers than the qualities of the content itself.

Why do people share content on social media anyway? Common sense says the answer is that they thought the content was worth reading, and they wanted to share this information with those around them – hence the most-shared content is the product of a meritocracy of interest. But in this case, common sense is wrong – this is the least common motivation for sharing content on social media, according to psychologists. Far more common are motivations related to identifying with causes, feeling more involved with the world or identifying ourselves to others, using the things we share.

Many of the stories above can function as badges linking you to a cause – futurism, global health, social activism. Sometimes, they are currency, used superficially to support a stance – gluten intolerance, clean eating, detox – whether the details of the content actually agree or not. See the controversy around whether Altmetric star “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet” actually supports or demolishes olive oil as a panacea.

So I suggest that a possible future for altmetrics lies not only down the path of assessing the impact of scientific content, for which they may be ill-suited – but in telling us more about what makes science shareable. Who are the people who choose to bring science into their conversations online? What are they hoping to say about themselves when they use science in this way? How do recipients of this content modify their view of the sharer? Perhaps looking at the rich Altmetric dataset backwards, through a lense that brings into focus the psychology of people sharing the content rather than the content itself, can open up a new understanding of how people relate to science.

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