Some Musings on Metrics

by Marjorie Mitchell
Librarian, Learning and Research Services
UBC Okanagan Library

As the first few weeks of the new academic year wrap up in Canada, academic librarians can now shift their focus from orienting new students back to supporting faculty and graduate students, especially research focused support. Many researchers are preparing grant funding applications for the fall round of deadlines and the systems for assessing these applications is becoming ever more complex.

As research funding becomes a global competition, how are funders to decide which research deserves their support?

Over the past few years, global discussions regarding various metrics determining research impact have increased. Within their institutional research communications, administrators use impact metrics to compare their institutions to others, either nationally or internationally. Within their funding applications, researchers use impact factors to indicate the importance and worthiness of their research. One real appeal of metrics is that they are tangible, objective measures of the real use of a product of scholarly research. Or are they?

Since the 1950s, bibliographic citation databases have been in continuous development and have formed a broad base for different publication metrics, especially article and journal metrics. These metrics have not been without issues, not the least of which is the variation in citation patterns between disciplines and the potential for researchers to attempt to “play” the system to make it appear that their research has had greater impact than it actually has had.

Coined in 2010 by Priem, “alternative metrics” measure the impact of newer, non-traditional forms of scholarship published and discussed outside academic journals or conference proceedings. Digital humanities, community-involved research, and emerging forms of scholarship prove challenging for grant funding bodies and administrators to assess. Interestingly, books have neither been extensively covered in the bibliographic citation databases nor have been the subject of computerized citation analysis to the same degree as journal articles or new, non-traditional forms of scholarly publications. All of these instances are fertile ground for conversations led by librarians.

Does this matter?

Institutionally, librarians can help both researchers and administrators to gain a fuller understanding of the uses, and potential pitfalls from misuse, of metrics of all varieties. The broader the understanding of the subtleties of metrics, the less likely they are to be misunderstood and/or misrepresented. Ultimately, this greater understanding could form the basis for a more balanced and equitable story of research happening within our universities.

Priem, J., & Hemminger, B. (2010). Scientometrics 2.0: New metrics of scholarly impact on the social Web. First Monday, 15(7). Retrieved September 21, 2015, from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2874/2570

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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