This post is by Kirstine McDermid and Nick Sheppard from the Research Support team based in the Research Hub on Level 13 of the Edward Boyle Library

The School of Advanced Study is in Senate House or, if you’ve seen the film of George Orwell’s 1984 starring John Hurt, the Ministry of Truth, fitting perhaps for a conference considering the modern information environment where science communication vies online with “fake news”.

For the uninitiated, altmetrics were first defined in a 2011 manifesto as an alternative to “traditional” bibliometrics (citations, H-Index, Journal Impact Factor). Seven short years later these “alternative metrics” reflect the various methods that have evolved to track and measure the online dissemination and sharing of research outputs – social and mainstream media, blogs, Twitter, Wikipedia – and the conference, just round the corner from the original Room 101 – considered this rapidly developing area from many different perspectives across publishing, libraries and business sectors.

As well as nearly 200 delegates from around the world presenting their work, both theoretical and practical, across 2 days of the main conference, the Altmetrics18 Workshop on Tuesday focused on Science & The Public: Public Interactions with Science through the Lens of Social Media while on Friday a fleet of genius coders collaborated on a “hack day” to create tools that scrape the net, drilling deep down into data to draw out meaningful statistics.

In an engaging keynote, independent award winning science journalist Jop de Vrieze discussed Research Reporting in the Mainstream Media and how news aggregation services like Eurekalert can result in an homogenised, uncritical coverage of science news that can tend towards click-bait, sensationalising to gain attention in a crowded marketplace. Jop suggested that academics need to take more responsibility for disseminating their research. Social media can help to facilitate the debate between scientists and the wider public (indeed a Leeds based scientist recently turned to Twitter after being misquoted in the Sunday Times.)

Jop has published his keynote lecture here – EurekAlert! Has spoiled science news. Here’s how we can fix it

Among the altmetric companies that did the rounds was Have you ever noticed that colourful donut you could almost eat on articles’ metadata? Well, that simple, visual method of summarising the number of tweets, news articles, policy documents or clinical trials associated with an article is courtesy of Plum Analytics, more oriented to Librarians and research administrators than to researchers themselves, were also in evidence while Cobaltmetrics, a young company from Washington DC posed an interesting question to the audience: are your metrics alt-enough? Chief Executive Officer Luc Boruta explained how there was a severe lack of diversity in Altmetrics which his company is striving to correct. Cobaltmetrics mines data from over 180 different languages.

Patti Smith (Northwestern University) gave insights into how her library’s research evaluation service uses altmetrics in their analyses, telling research stories with strong visual data which helps to summarise impact. Patti also emphasised that “alternative” metrics still focus very much on “traditional” scholarly outputs and that there needs to be a cultural shift that recognises reuse of other scientists’ data, this will require a better infrastructure and altmetrics can play a role. Patti’s talk tied in directly with Nick Sheppard‘s presentation which asked “Has anyone seen my data?” (slides available here)

Publishers talked about the importance of Altmetrics to track research impact and boost engagement while a funders’ panel with representatives from the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research and the University of Cambridge (a “meta” funder) were perhaps somewhat at odds with the rest of the conference in conceding that they do not currently use metrics of any kind, citing the conservative nature of big organisations, but suggesting this could change in the future.

I think one of the key messages that will stay with me long after the conference is that metrics are not just about the numbers, but the story behind those numbers. It simply isn’t enough to evaluate research with numbers alone; one piece of research could be getting media attention for the wrong reasons, and other research that has seemingly little attention could mean more. For example, a high profile news article discussing how  a piece of research had gone on to save lives, and surely that is of more significance than a hundred people tweeting a link to an article?


Kirstine McDermid gave a presentation about how altmetrics can be utilised to find and track clinical trials, and highlighted the importance of making clinical trials open access. You can read her blog post all about it here – Glossing Over the Truth: Hidden Clinical Trial Data.

Inevitably this short blog presents just some of our highlights. You can read more detailed coverage of all sessions over on the conference blog or try the hashtag on Twitter #5amconf.

Finally, we’d love to hear from you if altmetrics have helped you to tell your own story. Please get in touch!