Altmetric: Assessing Impact Beyond Citations


You may have wondered about those colorful pinwheel donuts with numbers next to journal articles that you’ve read. Those pinwheels are Altmetric Attention Score Badges. Altmetric (the company and service) was created in 2011 by Euan Adie and was officially released in 2012 after winning Elsevier’s App for Science Competition. However, the concept of alternative metrics (altmetrics) traces back to 2010 following the publication of “Altmetrics: A Manifesto” by Priem et al. which challenged academics to expand their view of what scholarly impact looks like. Traditionally the impact of scholarly work was limited to citation-based bibliometrics such as impact factor and h-index.


The purpose of altmetrics is to provide non-traditional bibliometrics to assess the total impact which complements traditional citation-based metrics. Some of the early alternative metrics used by publishers were the number of views and downloads an article received; which British Medical Journal (BMJ) started tracking in 2004. As technology has advanced, altmetrics have grown to include a diverse array of data taken from public APIs (application programming interfaces) across various platforms to assess the total impact of a wide variety scholarly work (journals, manuscripts, data sets, source code, and even people). The data collected typically includes online activity and “mentions” about the scholarly work from blogs, mainstream media coverage, academic forums, policy documents, Wikipedia, bookmarks on reference managers, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Many altmetric services also include traditional bibliometrics, downloads, and views as well.

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Companies like Altmetric automatically calculate the total activity collected and then provide a sum score which represents a weighted approximation of the total activity for a piece of scholarly work. A higher Attention Score reflects a greater impact. The weights for each data point are based on the relative reach of each source, ie. a tweet versus a news report. Each source of data is represented by a different color on the donut badge. For a list of the weights which Altmetric uses in their calculations follow this link.

One of the key advantages of altmetrics like the Altmetric Attention Score is that it can monitor the impact of work immediately, whereas traditional citation-based metrics required significantly more time since they are dependent on citations in subsequent publications. The other is that it provides a much more diverse and robust assessment of the impact of scholarly work. In an age where information is rapidly shared online, it’s important to have metrics which capture the reach of scholarly work beyond traditional academic mediums. As an author, it also allows you to track where, how and who is discussing your work. This helps facilitate communication and collaboration with other researchers, and the public as well. This opportunity for communication and collaboration are further enhanced when the scholarly work is made open-access.


Here is a snapshot of the Altmetric Attention Score for one of my recent publications.

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When you click on the donut badge it takes you to a page with a summary of the attention score.

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Each source of attention data is also given a tab which includes more specific demographic information for each source.

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When you click on the “Attention Score in Context” you are provided an analysis of how the total impact of a piece of scholarly work compares to publications in that journal issue, the journal overall, all publications of a similar age, and all publications ever recorded by Altmetric.

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As an important reminder, the Altmetric Attention Score and other similar altmetric services rank scholarly outputs based on attention. Altmetric scores are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the scholarly itself. In some fields of research, the work is less appealing to the public and media sources. Larger fields of research are also likely to gain more attention than smaller fields. Additionally, since altmetrics capture overall online activity they can be prone to “gaming”  and “spamming” tactics to artificially inflate scores. However, most companies have taken measures to actively identify and filter out the effects of such tactics.


If you’re interested in learning about the topics and characteristics of scholarly works which receive the most impact and attention check out the top 100 articles by Altmetric Attention score for 2018. I would also check out this recent article from the Nature Careers Community on Essential Elements for High Impact Scientific Writing!

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