Thursday, September 17, 2009

Does Anyone Read Our Papers?

Writing papers is fun, but rather pointless unless anyone reads them, uses them, and cites them. How do we find out if anyone reads our work? Gross citation counts are nice, and easily provided by ISI Web of Science (easily, that is, if your institution coughs up the money to pay for the database) or Google Scholar (free, but not always as comprehensive as ISI's counts). These services also provide links to the papers with the citations. This is useful, but everyone knows that more people read the paper than actually cite it. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to know how many are reading the darned thing.

Until now. Public Library of Science (the publishers of PLoS ONE, PLoS Biology, and other open access journals; in the interests of full disclosure, I'm an academic editor for PLoS ONE) has just completely shifted the playing field. Free, article-level metrics are now available. Easily. With one click, you can find out how many page views a research article has had and how many people have downloaded the PDF. Better yet, you can track trends through time and download the data into an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis.

Just for fun, I checked out the stats for my co-authored paper on Triceratops horn use, which was published in January of this year. To date, the publication has had over 7,000 page views, 851 downloads of the PDF file, and 1 citation. The paper on Darwinius, which came out shortly after the Triceratops paper, has had over 66,000 page views and over 5,800 downloads of the PDF file. PLoS ONE also provides summary tables for selected disciplines - a paper on evolutionary biology (which includes paleontology, for most purposes) published in 2008 could expect to have racked up at least 2,200 hits by now.

So what's to like here? Well, an author gets an immediate sense if someone is paying attention to a publication. Page views and PDF downloads are a valuable tool for gauging community interest. In concert with citation data, it's probably a far better gauge of a paper's worth than the impact factor for the journal that the publication happens to show up in. The data are also freely available, transparent, and frequently updated. The latter is particularly important because it may be years before a paper's full impact is known. An open-access metric for an open-access world.

And are there any problems? As with any metric, the unfortunate answer is yes. Page view counts probably include a lot of casual readers, who read the abstract and promptly forget the existence of the article in question. These counts could also be gamed by "click contests" - one need only smell the stench emanating from the hordes of Pharyngula's zombie fanboyz as they lurch towards the next on-line poll to realize just how malleable page view data potentially are (although to PLoS's credit, they have attempted to filter out any robot and web crawler traffic). The metric will also be abused by administrators, who will still make career-ending decisions based on a number (although at least it's a hopefully more relevant number this time). Once again to PLoS's credit, they provide explanatory and cautionary pages candidly outlining the pros and cons of the metric.

I suspect that other journals will follow suit - it may not happen tomorrow, but it will happen. We may be seeing the death of the traditional, sometimes tyrannical, "impact factor." Let's hope we don't replace it with a new despot!


russ said...

Many of the views and such may be due to reading them and not using them for any scholarly purpose. I know I read everything due to my intelectually curious mind. :)

Andy said...

This isn't necessarily (and shouldn't necessarily be) a bad thing. . .in fact, it's one of the real benefits of the new metrics. A paper's impact is much more than the number of bibliographic citations it garners. . .there are plenty of frequently cited papers that nobody ever reads, too! This may sound contradictory, but it would be safe to bet that we've all done it to some degree. Every paper has to (and should) cite the "standard" references for showing that you acknowledge the previous literature, regardless of whether or not they actually had a direct impact on the research at hand or if you even read the stupid thing.

Unknown said...

I don't even want to begin discussing the many papers that get cited in order to point out the utter nonsense and idiocy in them. Having such a case right now: wrong math, wrong physics, and GIGO thus tells us that the conclusions are also wrong. But if I do not cite it, no reviewer will let my manuscript pass. And if I do not point out the errors, same same: no reviewer will let it pass, because then MY data looks wrong.

Unknown said...

Hm, I guess PZ has not yet found out about this post, otherwise we'd have a gazillion posts here by now ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh well! Congrats on the Recognition of your paper on Triceratops horn use!! :) Hopefully, our new paper will have the same publicity! :)

BTW- I read the papers, when I have the time. Seriously, if I had the time, I WOULD read them, if I COULD!! ;)

Tor Bertin said...

Sorta off topic, but I'm currently working on a comprehensive review of the Spinosauridae (listing a great deal of the discoveries and research done on the clade since it was first named and suggesting some future areas of potential research--things like specimen numbers and any available measurement tables will also be included).

However, I'm not so sure what sort of journals encourage that kind of thing given that a lot of the paper is comprised of previously published data collection (though there is also some innovative thoughts/ideas as well.)--any suggestions?

Tor Bertin said...

*Are also!

Tor Bertin said...

Sorry for the comment spam, but I thought I'd add that after working on said paper a while long today, there's a lot more commentary on the finds than I had first thought. The reason I ask is that the PloS One guidelines say that papers shouldn't include previously reported research, and I'm not entirely sure how intensely that rule applies.

Basically, can I discuss certain previously reported finds and add my own input into their validity, significance, etc.?

BKim said...

I've just read (ok, skipped a lot through it) a preprint about discovering the origin of dogs. I'm a CS undergrad who loves cats and who'll never cite it.

Still, I've learned a lot about current trends in biology research, statistics and simulation than the NYT post about it gives, whose headline is about their speculation that dog were bred to be a source of food.

Isn't learning and teaching the goal? Or paper writing is a game about who does most and better?

Andy said...

Hi Tor--

I can't speak conclusively for PLoS ONE, but generally "synthetic" papers or review papers are out of their scope, according to editorial policies (as you noticed). It sounds like you might be on the review paper side of things. . .(but one never knows how the paper will turn out in the end).

If you're mainly focusing on open access journals, another good option might be PalArch. Their managing editor, Brian Beatty, is a regular commenter/reader here.

Brian Lee Beatty said...

Hi Tor,
Yes, your paper sounds like a great topic for PalArch, you should consider submitting it there. There are no page charges, we don't take copyright away from anyone, and review papers are welcome. It will still be peer reviewed, but hopefully in a way that you'll find constructive.
You can either send the manuscript, or even just an abstract, to and I'll try to get it out for review soon. I'm leaving tomorrow for the UK (SVP meeting), so it may be a little more than a week before I get it in reviewers' hands.

Tor Bertin said...

Sounds great, Brian. I'm not entirely sure when I'll have the manuscript ready for review (it may be a few weeks yet; lots going on), but I'll send a copy as soon as I can.