One of the first concepts of information studies that I was introduced to in library school was that of ‘Bibliometrics’, which I found both interesting and unnerving. Bibliometrics is the statistical analysis of publication impact through the use of citation counts and other methods for measuring readership. While certainly a useful method of keeping track of who is reading what and what ideas have influenced a certain piece of work, my concern is that it is very much a quantitative rather than qualitative tool and so it seems a rather blunt instrument for measuring scholarly impact. References and citations within a piece of work do not reveal the extent to which a text or an idea contained in a text has influenced an author. Therefore, it seems to me to be a reductionist view of scholarly impact which commodifies scholarship in an age where we are in danger of seeing value only in economic terms.
The concept of bibliometrics has been gradually falling out of favour and been replaced by that of ‘Altmetrics’ which has further blurred the field as regards contextualising impact. In so far as I understand altmetrics, it seems to expand on bibliometrics to include social media related sharing, mentions, likes, etc. It seems to me that taking account of these factors makes the assessment of impact even more diffuse. One person may share an article on Facebook for spurious reasons such as liking the title of the article, while another person who shares it might be profoundly influenced by the central tenets of the piece in its entirety. However, on the face of it, both would be assessed as having the same level of impact. While it is encouraging to see access to scholarship broaden its outreach by engaging with social and other media, you have to wonder how many of these ideas that are pervasively ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ are actually checked for evidence of substantial impact. Are people actually engaging with the scholarship they are now citing in a multitude of different ways?
If I had the time (or word count!) I’d offer some examples to argue that they aren’t, but does that mean that the advance of altmetrics should be a cause for concern? As with many of these more technical advances in information studies, it seems a better investment to be mindful of it than to react against it. Whether there is much inherent value in the data that altmetrics can yield, it is data that is still of use to many stakeholders. It is maximum exposure to a large audience that people now want for their output and engaging with altmetrics can help them achieve that. It would be nice to believe that the strength and substance of ideas in and of themselves could ensure their widespread appreciation, but that’s no longer how the world of scholarship works. Scholarship is now a dense network of interconnected ideas which are becoming more and more indebted to each other. Therefore, scholars now require an advanced and responsive framework such as that offered by altmetrics to optimise the dissemination of their research.