New Metrics Providers Help Keep Libraries in the Research-Tracking Game

June 03, 2013

As access to scholarly content online gets easier, librarians feel more pressure to be "central to the research process again," and altmetrics can help, says Mike Buschman.

He is one of the founders of Plum Analytics, a service that tracks different measures of research impact, including altmetrics. Mr. Buschman used to be the collections-management librarian at Microsoft. He founded Plum in 2012 with Andrea Michalek, a tech entrepreneur. It tracks "people and papers," which he calls the "atomic units" of the service. Plum wants to analyze and channel that information back to researchers with the help of library partners. In January, it began a pilot project with the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Pittsburgh. Timothy S. Deliyannides is director of the office of scholarly communication and publishing at Pittsburgh and head of information technology in the library system there.

A critical part of the library's job is helping the research faculty "understand and be able to measure the impact of their works," he says. "And since much of their work takes place online now, and not just in the cited periodical literature, there are lots of new ways to measure their impact."

The first step, and sometimes a big one, is to make scholars aware that there is a world of metrics beyond citations and impact factors. Even scholars who are active online aren't always aware "that the impact of their work in those new forums can be measured," Mr. Del­iyannides says.

For the Plum pilot, the library recruited 33 researchers from across disciplines, uploading their CVs to Pitt's institutional repository. Plum "harvests all that metadata, so they know everything we know about the researchers' works," he says. "That's when they do their magic."

That "magic" involves checking as many as a hundred different sources of publicly available usage data for every "research artifact" such as a journal article, a conference presentation, or some other piece of scholarship, according to Mr. Deliyannides. For each one "they're trying to find whatever measures there are of usage." Plum's software then creates a profile for each researcher, with different interfaces. A "Sunburst" view allows a user to see a graphic display of how each research object is faring.

"It's really useful for representing the immediacy of impact that was hidden before," Mr. Deliyannides says. The Pittsburgh library has been fairly quiet about the experiment. "We're not really on a crusade to change any of the university's normal processes for tenure or review," Mr. Deliyannides says. "But we hope people will think of new ways to use this data. We do feel it's valid data and something that hasn't been gathered or reported before."

Librarians and administrators say altmetrics can help provide a more nuanced view of how scholarship lives in the wider world. "It's not just that we want to see whether somebody's science paper is picked up on Twitter," says Lisa J. Graumlich, dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington. "I think we'll see these tools evolve so that we'll be tracking the impact of research in a much deeper way."