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Measure for Measure: Altmetrics (June 2017): Scholarly Networks

By Beth Juhl

Scholarly Networks

“We see only what we know,” as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed.1 To many librarians, new web-based reference-management tools such as CiteULike, Zotero, Papers, or Mendeley looked like services they already knew, offering a way to collect, organize, and format the cited references in one’s bibliographies. At first, these appeared to be only web-based alternatives to traditional, commercially produced citation-manager tools like EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, or RefWorks. But the new open-source platforms soon evolved beyond simply managing bibliographic references into collaborative systems for sharing, discussion, and peer review. While not primarily designed to convey the stature of authors or the reach of their publications, each tool preserves source data that can be measured in terms of saves, shares, and downloads.

CiteULike and Mendeley were developed by UK academics, and both launched in 2008. CiteULike is a browser-based bookmark tool whose design has remained fairly stable since its original release, allowing users to cite and save references to their personal libraries, share those libraries, and connect with others who save the same items. Mendeley, on the other hand, continues to add new features and modules such as a recently launched datasets repository, thanks in part to the development support of its new owner, Elsevier. Mendeley not only offers fully featured reference-management software complete with word-processor integrations and shared collections, but also supports a robust collaboration environment that links like-minded groups, claiming more than five million users worldwide. A personal Stats dashboard displays the number of citations to one’s work (and the h-index measure, from Scopus), plus views or readers of one’s articles (from ScienceDirect and Mendeley databases). The major altmetrics services, including Impactstory, Altmetric, and Plum Analytics, all harvest and report user activity on the Mendeley platform.

Like Mendeley, Academia and ResearchGate were also founded in 2008 but they marked a distinct break from the world of bibliographic reference managers. Instead, each serves more as a paper repository and hub for making scholarly connections. Boasting more than 45 million users worldwide, Academia (previously named Academia.edu) offers user profiles and subject tags based on article uploads and manually created cited references. By assigning tags to one’s collected articles and choosing to follow particular scholars, one builds a personal landing page that supplies related articles of potential interest. Users have access to real-time analytics showing profile and document views; alerts emails notify users of new visits or mentions in recently uploaded papers.

Academia has no particular subject affiliation, whereas ResearchGate, which claims more than 12 million users, focuses on the sciences. Like the other tools, the free profile setup on ResearchGate walks users through a list of possible name variations and suggests colleagues that one may wish to follow based on common research interests or co-citations. An interesting organizing feature is the ability to group articles or other publications into projects and to post information about current projects underway. Personal statistics present profile views, reads or article views, and citations; statistics are driven by the full-text availability of papers uploaded to the system. ResearchGate offers researchers their h-index value as well as an RG Score, which is based on interactions of other ResearchGate users with one’s own contributions, discussions, and answers to research questions; institutions or academic departments can also be assigned an RG Score. As with so many other new metrics, the score is intriguing but, being based on a self-selected community of varying depth by discipline, it is difficult to know exactly what such numbers mean outside of their own network.

SSRN, the Social Science Research Network (with more than 2 million users when it was acquired in May 2016 by Elsevier), was established in 1994—long before either Academia or ResearchGate—and it offers a rigorously organized repository for social sciences preprints, conference papers, and other publications. Participation in SSRN is free though the site also sells subscriptions to subject portals and offers pass-throughs to some publishers for full-text article access. Posted rankings offer top downloads by subject area, author, and organization. SSRN had a particularly high participation rate in some areas, such as business and law, but its acquisition by Elsevier caused a storm of concern among open-access advocates. While SSRN is still freely available, new initiatives such as SocArXiv Preprints offer a fully noncommercial alternative for social scientists to archive their published works in earlier stages, from working papers presented at conferences to final preprints. SocArXiv has been developed in partnership with the Center for Open Science’s Open Science Framework, an initiative that promises to help manage the workflow of scholarship from the inception of a research project to publication, with an analytics section documenting usage.

Beyond bibliographic products, figshare, a part of the Digital Science family (owned by Macmillan, along with ReadCube and Altmetric), similarly offers repository space for research data. Individuals may join for free and upload both public and private research materials and see real-time information on views and downloads. Institutional subscriptions allow universities to host all their research data in one place, to promote their research outputs by making them publically available with stable DOIs, and to view insights from usage analytics at the item, researcher, department, or institution level.


1. Goethe on Art, 7.