Interview with Euan Adie, Founder of Altmetric

 

Q: Altmetric was founded by you in 2011. When would you say the idea of Altmetric really formed for you, and what were your inspirations?

A: Back in 2003 I was working in bioinformatics, in a medical genetics lab. I was new to the field and learning a lot from blogs written by other bioinformaticians – but it seemed like there should really be a way to connect those blogs to the research, so you could see what new papers were being recommended, what people were saying about specific articles, that kind of thing.

The other driver for me was the realization that you don’t get proper credit for writing software or maintaining databases even though the wider field of research relies on it. You have to write papers and get citations even if your contributions don’t really fit that model.

Q: Were there any particular difficulties or did you encounter much doubt from people in the early stages of establishing and promoting Altmetric? What about now? And how did/do you respond?

A: Generally speaking the reception was pretty good early on! The main difficulty has usually been that people assume that altmetrics are all to do with social media. That isn’t the case, though there’s a lot of social media data in altmetrics tools.

I think it’s fine, in the research space, to be skeptical of anything to do with metrics or that might add burdens to researchers. What I’d always ask people to do though is try out the tools for themselves, and ask questions about them.

The problem for us early on was the same one as for most start-ups: are we going to run out of money? What model works for the market and allows us to be sustainable? It took a while to crack that and move on to the point where we could invest in new hires, data and functionality.

 Q: What have been your major accomplishments and milestones as a company?

A: Well, I think we owe a lot to the wider community of people helping to put altmetrics into practice – to people like Jason Priem & Heather Piwovar at ImpactStory, and the thinking done by Michael Habib & Mike Taylor at Elsevier and Martin Fenner & Jennifer Lin at PLoS, for example.

I say that up front because I think the biggest thing we’ve helped to do is to get people talking about alternative metrics and outputs. That has in turn helped to inform wider conversations about metrics, citations, impact and best practices in research assessment, at least in a small way. But that has really been a group effort.

I think as a company our contribution has been strongest in the publishing space, where article level metrics are pretty standard now – it’s more unusual to *not* have article level metrics of some kind. I think that’s a good thing for editors, authors and readers alike.

A good milestone for us was the 1:AM conference last year which we co-organized with the Wellcome Trust, eLife, Elsevier, Springer and PLoS. That was the point where I thought, OK, the people actually using the data are now contributing to the field, saying what works and what doesn’t, helping people figure out what to focus on and what not to.

 Q:  An established author, a journal editor, a publishing or institutional representative and an early-career-researcher walk up to your booth at a conference. Sounds like a joke set up, I know, but what’s your core pitch? How would you explain your company’s purpose to each of these potential users?

A: For the authors: are you curious to see what people are saying (good or bad)? We can let you know when you’ve been cited in places outside the traditional literature – guidelines, policy documents, blogs and even Wikipedia.

For the editor: you probably already have an idea of how the articles you publish end up being used. Altmetric can help you see evidence of this and put it into context, as well as alert you to discussions around pieces of research that might benefit from the author or an editor stepping in.

For a research officer: we can give you some tools to take the donkey work out of collecting indicators of or evidence for some kinds of impact. Then you can focus on what’s important: weighing it up and interpreting it.

Q: Let’s dig into Altmetric’s products and tools. What do you offer at the researcher level?

A: We have an institutional subscription platform, and a lot of researchers will have access to that tool. However, if you don’t then the main thing we offer to researchers is the browser bookmarklet at altmetric.it.

You can install it and then get data back on any article you visit in your web browser (assuming we can pick up a DOI or some other identifier from the web page, which is harder than it sounds).

Q: What are some of the most innovative/inspiring uses of the Altmetric API that you’ve seen thus far?

A: I loved the ORCID / Altmetric mashups – there was one from our development team that came out of a hack day and another from Keita Bando: https://storify.com/KeitaBando/altmetric-for-orcid-bookmarklet

 Q: Looking to the future, what does the Impact Factor look like in your mind a few years or longer from now, and what role do you think Altmetric will play in it?

A:  Weirdly I have more sympathy for the Impact Factor since starting Altmetric. I think it’s because it’s not inherently a bad number – it’s just a number. What’s bad is the culture of misuse that built up around it and fetishized it.

In theory I don’t think it’s a bad thing to use in journal marketing, for example. It’s a journal level measure of citations, and you’re advertising a journal. The big problem is, I guess, the implication that citations are quality, and that all the articles in the journal will have that quality, etc. etc.

So… I don’t think it’ll go away and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing if it’s balanced out by smart initiatives like DORA or people becoming more familiar with things like the Leiden Manifesto.

…and our role, I think, is to keep pointing out that you want a mix of different indicators, metrics and approaches, and to make putting that mix together as easy as possible.

Q: Building from that—what’s next for you and Altmetric? I.e. What would you like to see development-wise and which steps will you be taking to get you there?

A:  My slightly bland but honest answer is that I think we’ve gotten the first generation of tools out there and now we have to spend some time listening to our users and learning what their big pain points are. I think we’ll increasingly spend time on enriching the data we already collect and on expanding areas relating to impact rather than just attention.

Building on that, there are things that I’d love to do that we haven’t really tackled properly: looking at different contributions to research, mapping articles to funders, finding a good solution for getting credit for writing software.


More about Euan Adie:  Euan is the founder of data science company Altmetric.com, which captures and collects the online conversations surrounding papers and other research outputs for publishers, funders and academic institutions. Altmetric was founded in 2011 and is supported by Digital Science. Euan frequently speaks at conferences on article level metrics and the practical uses of altmetrics in publishing.

Euan was previously a senior product manager at Nature Publishing Group, where projects at one time or another included scientific blog aggregator postgenomic.com, Connotea, Nature.com Blogs and NPG’s mobile apps. Before joining the STM publishing industry he worked in academia as a bioinformatics researcher studying psychiatric genetics at the University of Edinburgh.