Altmetrics: An Analysis of Social Media Promotion, Gaming, and Ethics in Academic Publishing

Both enthusiasm and caution surrounding the use of social media and altmetrics—“alternative metrics” that measure online attention garnered by published journal articles or other scholarly works—in scientific publishing have increased as editors, authors and readers use these technologies regularly. In some sectors of the publishing world, the introduction of these technologies raises questions around publication ethics and the role of journal editors in promoting—and potentially artificially inflating or “gaming” altmetrics for—research published in their journals.

In this report, we discuss the effects of social media promotion through the lense of altmetrics. We begin with a look at an experiment, which tracked altmetrics for 120 articles published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal (ASJ) between 1996 to 2016. ASJ editors introduced a number of interventions, including extra social media promotion and press coverage, to better understand variations in altmetrics as a result of such promotion by ASJ editors and authors, compared to articles that pre-date the onset of social media. They further studied eight articles that received deliberate extra social media, press, and other promotional interventions to assess whether those articles’ altmetrics improved as a result.

Our results show a demonstrated increase in altmetrics for ASJ research published after 2012, due to the heavy use of social media for marketing purposes. We found that the newest articles published in ASJ, in particular those that were afforded extra social media and other marketing promotion after 2014, typically garnered the highest Altmetric Attention Scores, with greater digital impact in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and national media attention.

The report goes on to discuss these findings in the context of publication ethics. We believe that a grey area exists between the extremes of “all research promotion is good, because it results in attention for our journals” and “any kind of strategic social media promotion of research is unethical.” Strategic promotion for research on the part of journal editors and authors can be helpful in bringing research to the attention of communities of interest. However, gaming practices such as purchasing social media posts and the use of bots are inexcusable, and such practices can cast undue suspicion upon responsible journal marketing practices. These practices may in turn cause readers to question the ethics of the research itself, which can be detrimental for journals.

This report shows that the use of social media and targeted engagement strategies in academic publishing can have significant effects on an article’s digital impact, and added benefits for journals such as improved author and brand loyalty. We invite journal editors and authors who read this report to consider this topic and share their feedback with ASJ and Altmetric.