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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1AM Altmetrics Conference Review

1:AM Conference

I was very lucky to attend the first UK conference focusing on Altmetrics hosted at the Wellcome Trust in Euston, London last week. With the growing interest in the topic and a term that many have heard but not yet investigated the event was sold out well in advance. I got there on Thursday morning to enter a packed auditorium to hear the conference opening from Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust who talked about the way research measurement was changing and that where Altmetrics and other such initiatives were taking us; but could in turn happen after his generation have retired. Farrar warned about the over-burdening of researchers by so many new technologies and measurements, something I am all too aware of in my role of trying to get academics to engage with new forms of technology.

The structure of the two day conference was neatly broken into specialised silos of content, all broadly looking at the future of academia from new metrics to new outputs to measure. Sessions were broken down into presentations from altmetricians (is that a job title or term for that matter?), researchers, publishers and fund holders.
Obviously given the theme and abstracts it was easy to imagine anyone glancing in from the outside may have seen the conference as exclusively presenting sessions on new forms of measurement, in particular altmetrics. Yet the the conference discussed new routes and measurements of impact, research into how citations were being affected and not affected by social media, and how fund holders were starting to look at the new technologies aligned with altmetrics; and how researchers were finding new and innovative ways to share their research.

The idea that the conference was purely about measurement was far from the truth, it was about exploring where altmetrics had been going for the last two years and where it will potentially go in the future. It is fair to say that the first altmetric conference in the UK had a real bias towards selling products, but in balance many of these products are free or certainly cheaper or more dynamic alternatives to what we have right now. The conference highlighted that the current system of purely citing papers was no longer good enough as a way of measuring and sharing research.

The entire conference was streamed live to the Web and as you would imagine had a very healthy Twitter hashtag 1AMconf with over 4,000 Tweets in two days. You can view all of the Tweets in this Google Doc. After the welcome from Jeremy Farrar the conference started with some of the main players in the altmetrics community, Jennifer Lin from PLOS, William Gunn from Mendeley and Euan Aide from, et all giving an update as to the areas they had been working on and where they saw the altmetrics going. William explained that he felt the researcher was in the best position to explain their work and altmetrics, social media and other technologies gave them the platforms to do so.

The next group delivered presentations on how people were using altmetrics with an interesting presentation from Mike Thellwall, Professor of Information Science at The University of Wolverhampton. Mike talked extensively about the work he and his colleagues had done looking at whether social media had positive effects for journal paper citations. He found that certain tools, Facebook posts, Tweets, blog mentions, research highlights, forum posts and media mentions did associate with citation counts in some fields of research. Certainly a positive to take away from this presentation and a couple others that altmetrics may not as yet have the impact some may profess, but are looking like good indicators of what may get cited later on and for now help identify hot topics of research. This is of course something the social web does very well by spotting and promoting the latest information. For anyone wanting to read more of Mike’s interesting work in this field should look at his publication list here:

Professor Mike Thelwall presenting at 1:AM
 For me, no altmetrics conference would have been worth its salt without a library/information person presenting. Joan Wee from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore talked about the important role librarians can play in altmetrics. Joan explained that librarians work in a neutral role and that the research office overseeing measurement of research would just look like assesment. Certainly this is a stance that I share being an information specialist and seeing many library and information professionals being so active within open access, bibliometrics, research promotion and heavily using social media in a mature and professional way that they should have a part to play somewhere.

There was an excellent and informative session on how science was being communicated through blogs and other informal channels. It was really interesting how Bjoern Brembs, Professor of Neuorgenetics from Universität Regensburg talked about his experiences of trying to persuade colleagues to change how they work. From using RSS to discover new and existing topics of interest to the use of collaborative documents such as Google Docs rather than the old method of using email attachment Word documents. Delegates heard of how Brian Wecht, co-founder of the impressive Story Collider uses a stand up comedian approach to deliver his research ideas and findings to lay audiences outside of academia.

There was an interesting discussion on the ethics of social media in research by Daniel O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust. Daniel talked about how clinicians had used social media to engage with their patients and the interesting example of one doctor correcting their patient who was Tweeting about their treatment. He raised two types of social media ethics questions, firstly that of research being done with social platforms and research using social content. Daniel talked about where do researchers stand when there is a wealth of open data out there that participants have not provided for research purposes. In essence his talk came down to people’s expectations of privacy. Do social media users have a responsibility to protect their own privacy? What responsibilities do researchers have to respect social media users’ privacy?

Finally on day one there were four presentation from the funding sector, HEFCE Steering Group on Metrics, Wellcome Trust , Science Foundation Ireland and AMRC. They all agreed that altmetrics had possibilities with regards to measurement and impact but that it needed further research and evidence as there was a worry that researchers could be rewarded on social media skills not research skills. The potential for altmetrics and social media was that it gave charities funding research an opportunity to monitor the research they fund within the media and on the Web. Another useful point, shared by most at the conference was that researchers needed to be trained in social media, such as putting DOIs into Tweets when citing papers. To finish the day there was a discussion on how metrics were being used in institutions with one breakout group deciding to abolish journal impact factors and almetrics in favour of emojis :-)

The promise and pitfalls of altmetrics by Ruth Freeman, Director of Strategy & Communications, Science Foundation Ireland 

Day two started with a session looking at the role of publishers within altmetrics with presentations from Elsevier, Springer, PLOS and eLife. Certainly this was one focus that brought about a lot of discussion, especially towards the end of the conference, that publishers do seem to have taken a recent great interest in altmetrics. Certainly that much was for sure when Elsevier paid a huge sum of money for one of the leading advocates of altmetrics, Mendeley in 2013. Obviously as you would expect PLOS were pushing the altmetric envelope the most in comparison to the big traditional publishers who are now not only starting to integrate altmetrics into their catalogues but look at the metrics that come out of their usage. Jennifer Lin from PLOS highlighted that publishers needed to participate in an open ecosystem for data sharing for altmetrics to work.

Other morning talks were delivered by Geoff Bilder, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CrossRef and Cameron Neylon, Director or Advocacy at PLOS. The session looked at things that had not gone so well in the field of altmetrics. There was discussion regarding the need for open infrastructures and that commercial innovation was important but what was needed for ownership and an open system.

In the afternoon sessions looked at measuring and tracking other research outputs and was quite fittingly chaired by Mark Hahnel from FigShare. Talks by RDA Metrics Group, Cern and the National Science Foundation focused on how they share, measure and quite interestingly cite data. There was a presentation by Todd Carpenter, Executive Director of NISO with an update on the alternative metrics they launched last year and their role in the research evaluation process.

The last thing I attended was a group workshop, mine being chaired by Euan Adie from The remit of our group was to discuss what more could be done to engage with academics and improve the field of altmetrics. It was agreed by the group that one way to deliver outreach was to work with early career researchers, and students at all higher education levels. There was some discussion as to whether social media and altmetrics training should be delivered at university. For what it is worth, I think social media, netiquette and Web training needs to start at school level, but in terms of professionalism, career building and knowledge searching and critiquing, it would be beneficial to the majority of students in universities. There was a discussion as to whether senior academics are likely to engage with altmetrics, given it is a very different system from the one that helped promote and build their own careers. Which took me back to the start of the conference and Jeremey Farrar’s welcome talk where he felt those in his generation may not see the paradigm shift, if there is one, in how research is conveyed and measured.

For me the three greatest issues that proponents of altmetrics need to address are how do they get more researchers involved in a way that will not impact their research and workflows but improve it. How can they build sustainable and connected systems as there were various comments about the confusion created by the various platforms and metric systems. Whilst the final issue was that alongside the term ‘altmetrics’ perhaps not being the best tag as it implies an wholly new alternative to the current system, as noted by the person who coined the phrase Jason Priem from ImpactStory is that of how people see altmetrics.

This is where many doubters of altmetrics usually confuse the issue and is to some extent fault of the various groups behind it, not they are confusing it but that they are many, all with their own angles, requirements and long-term goals. Like one of the other buzzwords of the last two years, ‘impact’ that people often see it as different thing from the person next to them. Altmetrics to one person is the measurement of their journal paper by the use of social media. Whilst it can be the measurement of other things, databases, policy documents, blog posts, so not only being a new measurement of existing outputs, it measures new things, for some research groups - important things that were previously ignored. It also drills down into the data and can show where geographically a piece of research is being saved, read or talked about on the Web. As like the other term ‘impact’ it is something that has wide reaching potential, aided by social media. As with MOOCs, open access and big data, altmetrics if anything has shaken up academia and in the long run could be for the better. the first conference in the UK on the topic at least has brought many parties to the table to discuss it, which can only be good, even if newer, better, unified systems come as a result of it as the current one is starting to look a bit tired.

For anyone wanting to view any of the sessions, they are available on the Altmetrics Conference YouTube Channel -

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