Tue 27 Dec 2011
Following on my previous post, another thought that springs from personal experience and its convergence with someone’s research. If you look at my Google Scholar profile, you will note that in 2011 my citation counts exploded (by social science standards, mind you – in the qualitative social sciences an article with 50 citations or more is pretty huge). Now, part of this is probably a product of my academic maturation – a number of articles now getting attention have been around for 3-4 years, which is about how long it takes for things to work their way into the literature. However, I’ve also seen a surge in a few older pieces that had previously plateaued in terms of citations. This can’t be attributed to a new surge in interest in a particular topic, as these articles cross a range of development issues. However, they all seem to be surging since I got on Twitter and joined the blogosphere. Bascially, it seems a new circle (circles?) of interested folks now has access to my work and ideas, and the result is that my work is finding its way into a new set of venues/disciplines that it might otherwise not have reached. It is hard to be sure about this, as my 18 months on the blog and 1 year on twitter are just at the edges of how long it takes to get an article written, submitted, accepted and published, but clearly something is happening here . . .
This seems to be borne out by some work done by Gunther Eysenbach examining the relationship between tweets (references to a paper on twitter) and the level of citation that paper eventually enjoyed. Eysenbach found that “highly tweeted” papers tended to become highly cited papers, though the study was quite preliminary (h/t to Martin Fenner at Gobbledygook. You can find links to Eysenbach’s paper and Martin’s thoughts on it here). This makes sense to me – but it requires a bit more study. I like what Fenner and his colleagues are trying to do now, capturing the type of reference made in the tweet (supporting/agreeing, discussing, disagreeing, etc.). Frankly, references in general should be subject to such scrutiny. As one of my colleagues once said, if citation counts are all that matter we should write the worst paper ever on a subject, jam it into some journal that did not know better, publicize it and wait for the piles of angry negative citations to pile in . . . only we just have to count the citations, not admit that we are being cited because people hate us!
The altmetrics movement is starting to take off in academia (see, for example, this very cool discussion) I have not yet seen any discussion, though, of what social media might do to journal prestige. While there will always be flagship journals to which disciplines full of tenure-track faculty will bow, once tenure is achieved this sort of homage becomes less important. Given what I am seeing with regard to my citations right now, my desire to have my work have impact beyond my discipline and the academy, and my concerns for the policing effect of peer review (which emerges most acutely in flagship journals – see my posts here and here), why should I struggle to get my work into a flagship journal when I can get a quick turnaround and publication in a smaller journal, still have the stamp of peer review on the piece, and then promote it via social media to a crowd more than willing to have a look? If I (or anyone else) can drive citations through mild self-promotion via social media, does the journal it is published in really matter that much? I wonder what sort of effect this might have on the structure of publishing now – will flagship journals have to become more nimble and responsive, or will they soldier on without changes? Will smaller journals sense this opportunity and move into this gap? Will my colleagues embrace the rising influence of social media on academic practice?
Does any of this matter? Not really. If the emerging studies on social media and citation are correct, and my trends are sustainable, then one day I will be one of the “important” folks with a lot of citations . . . and I will be training my students to engage in conventional and non-conventional ways. I will not be the only one. Those of us who engage with social media, and train our students to do so, will eventually win this race. Change is coming to academia, but the nature and importance of that change remain up in the air . . .