Impact in Action: Understanding open access content usage as it occurs

We all want our research to be read, cited and talked about as widely as possible, and promoting this work should be the mission of an open access publisher. But how do we monitor the impact of this promotion? As part of our Open Access Week celebrations we asked Dylan Parker, Associate Publisher at BioMed Central, to explore how metric services like Altmetric shed light on exactly where and how far your research is reaching. This blog can also be read at Altmetric.

Promoting the broadest possible public access to published research is the core mission of any open access publisher worthy of an author’s time and consideration. If we are to meet the call for “concrete steps to open up research” driven by this year’s Open Access Week, however, we have to support authors, their advocates and institutions in understanding the impact of the research as it occurs. This means providing measures of article usage from the standard citation, downloads and accesses to understanding media coverage, article sharing, and other references that put that usage in context.

We know that there is a correlation between increased citation and media hit rates of research that publishes with open access. For usage alone, the Wellcome Trust in the UK found open access articles had 89% more downloads than funded articles published in publications with controlled access. In order to support the ongoing and wider adoption of open research, it helps to know where and how articles are being used and referred to via various measures of engagement.

A relatively recent article in Marine Biodiversity Records provides a good example of open access content in action. Published in June of this year, “A lionfish (Pterois miles) invasion has begun in the Mediterranean Sea”, received wide spread media attention upon publication due to the public interest in the article’s subject. As shared in the metrics on the article page on the journal website, we know that the article has received over 1,600 accesses since publication, with one citation registered in the roughly four months since publication.image-1

On one hand, we have the first of hopefully many citations to the article from the authors’ peers in their own published research. On the other, it’s helpful to know what type of attention and engagement the article might be receiving in other areas like social media, policy referrals, post-publication peer commentary, and much more.

The lifespan of each of these metrics vary widely, and as an open access publisher, we have to give authors and all those interested in the outcome of their research a sense of article usage and impact at each metrics respective level of immediacy.

Complementary metrics services like Altmetrics help open access publishers give research stakeholders a broader overview of article activity across various channels where an author’s research might have impact at any given time.

Many types of article usage, access and sharing are tracked and then proportionately represented in the color bar also seen in the article metrics section in the image above. Once clicked upon, we come to the detailed page with the affectionately-called Altmetric “donut.” Research stakeholders can then easily see when and where an article is referred to and shared across policy documents, social media channels, platforms like Wikipedia and shared in tools like Mendeley.


From this page we can see immediate interest in the article from press media such as The Washington Post, Focus BBC and Scientific American close to the date of publication. While this initial interest is also echoed on social media like Twitter and Facebook, there is continued conversation about the article on both platforms up until quite recently. We also know where tweets and shares on Mendeley occur on the heat-map provided on the article level page, giving an added visual and quantitative sense of social engagement around the article.

In combination, researchers, authors, institutions, and anyone interested in marine biology for that matter (this is open access, after all) can see very quickly the impact the article has had since its publication. While we wait to understand the impact on the research of fellow peers through citations, we know through high press and social engagement measurements that there is a great deal of interest in the lionfish invasion in public and research spheres as it occurs.

Accesses and impact give two very stable indications of content engagement and usage, and social, media and policy metrics like Altmetrics provide even more color to that story, pun very much intended. Collectively, all metrics of scientific literature serve to help us understand the use and value of published research at various times and places, all of which give us a better, deeper sense of “open access in action.”

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