Interpreting “altmetrics”: viewing acts on social media through the lens of citation and social theories

“More than 30 years after Cronin’s seminal paper on “the need for a theory of citing” (Cronin, 1981), the metrics community is once again in need of a new theory, this time one for so-called “altmetrics”. Altmetrics, short for alternative (to citation) metrics — and as such a misnomer — refers to a new group of metrics based (largely) on social media events relating to scholarly communication. As current definitions of altmetrics are shaped and limited by active platforms, technical possibilities, and business models of aggregators such as, ImpactStory, PLOS, and Plum Analytics, and as such constantly changing, this work refrains from defining an umbrella term for these very heterogeneous new metrics. Instead a framework is presented that describes acts leading to (online) events on which the metrics are based. These activities occur in the context of social media, such as discussing on Twitter or saving to Mendeley, as well as downloading and citing. The framework groups various types of acts into three categories — accessing, appraising, and applying — and provides examples of actions that lead to visibility and traceability online. To improve the understanding of the acts, which result in online events from which metrics are collected, select citation and social theories are used to interpret the phenomena being measured. Citation theories are used because the new metrics based on these events are supposed to replace or complement citations as indicators of impact. Social theories, on the other hand, are discussed because there is an inherent social aspect to the measurements.”