Metrics, altmetrics and back-handed compliments

The readership statistics for my thesis, on the politics and ethics of cultural heritage work in conflict zones, have consistently (if unsurprisingly) shown that open access work is read more often and more widely than paywalled work. However, as suggested by my thesis’s slipping place amongst the institutionally-hosted e-prints of the University of Sussex (which include a lot of publications that inform policy), by the near-zero clicks on a link to an open access article that I’d added to my publications page but not advertised in a post, and by the article’s poor visibility on the web outside searches for its title, neither work’s existence nor its accessibility is enough.


Altmetric ‘watch social media sites, newspapers, government policy documents and other sources for mentions of [contemporary] scholarly articles‘. Obviously, they don’t cover everything (and they cover very little from more than three years ago), but they do what they can, and they already track public discussion of more than two million articles.

My article, on using open-source data to analyse the illicit antiquities trade, was released “online first” on the 28th of June. According to Altmetric data, already by the 30th of June, it was the most shared of the (thirty-two) tracked articles from the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research (EJCPR), and in the top 10% of most shared articles out of the total two million plus. The average EJCPR article had a score of 2.2; the average article worldwide had a score of 4.8; my article had a score of 12.9.

However, it had only been shared by sixteen Twitter accounts; two of those were mine (for Balkan and Mediterranean matters @samarkeolog and for illicit trade in and political violence against cultural property @conflictantiq), two of them were Peter Campbell’s (for Adriatic and Mediterranean archaeology @peterbcampbell and for illicit antiquities news @StolenHeritage); I think I’m on first name terms with most of the other people who shared it; and two of the other signals of public discussion may have been updates to my pages for publications on Conflict Antiquities and Unfree Archaeology (though I don’t think Altmetric tracks my blogs).

Back-handed compliments

It might be argued, then, that my Altmetric score had been unduly increased by my and my friends’, colleagues’ and acquaintances’ sharing; but other authors’ scores will have been increased in the same way. Moreover, my article hadn’t been in the newspapers and Altmetric’s calculations were weighted against social media with small audiences. Six weeks later, despite no-one having shared it in those six weeks, it’s still the most shared article from its journal, and it’s still in the top 10% of all Altmetric-tracked articles (though its score has dropped to 12.55).

Tracked data are limited – for example, my untracked post-print on the paramilitary takeover of antiquities trafficking through the Cyprus Conflict has been downloaded far more often than my tracked article on communal participation in antiquities looting.

One of the problems is that much scholarly work is simply inaccessible to the public, because it is behind a paywall (which is as concerning as it sounds). Many scholars are hiding (and simultaneously advertising) their paywalled research in plain sight, such as on their own sites or (at least until their publisher forces them to remove it), and sharing it privately. So that might undermine tracking of plain language summaries and/or public discussion of paywalled publications.

Make it easy to understand, make it possible to access, make it easy to find

I am fortunate that I am affiliated with (though not employed by) University College London (UCL), which pays the Article Processing Charges (APCs) to enable open access publication, but perhaps only 40% of open access articles achieve a score of 10 or more in six months. So, excluding every other possible factor, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that masses of scholarly authors are not making any effort even to let the public know that they’ve done a significant piece of work or what significant work they’ve done (which is as bizarre as it sounds), and/or much scholarly writing is completely incomprehensible or completely uninteresting to the public (which is as concerning as it sounds).

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