From Impact Factor to Altmetrics: How Did We Get Here? What Does It Mean?

Since the first scientific journal in 1665, the connection between article and journal has been unbreakable, bound by the printing press, but with access limited by delivery methods and geography. The print format was the quality filter: articles published in highly coveted journals had a greater chance of being read and cited. Three hundred and fifty years later, the article has been largely decoupled from the journal.1 Instead of browsing physical journals, we discover articles by searching online databases, like PubMed, where we can find articles based on their own merits. The journal impact factor was developed in the 1960s to identify journals with significant proportions of highly cited articles,2 but in the digital age our guides to content have expanded.

Enter alternative metrics or altmetrics, a complement to the impact factor. While the impact factor is derived from the long-term aggregate of a journal’s citation statistics, altmetrics provide immediate feedback to specific articles. Publisher PLoS calls these “article-level metrics” and displays them with each article published. Typically, altmetrics measure how many times an article has been viewed or downloaded to reference software, such as Mendeley, as well as linked to from other scholarly products such as blogs and social media (Twitter; Facebook), videos (YouTube), presentations (SlideShare), repositories (D-Scholarship@Pitt; PMC (PubMed Central)), and datasets (Dryad; GEO). The National Science Foundation (NSF) now requests that products other than publications be included in a grantee’s biosketch, indicating widening recognition.3 New digital tools made these contributions to scholarship possible, just as the printing press made the first scholarly journals possible.

Use altmetrics to promote and better disseminate your work and to discover collaborators. Monitor global discussion, citations, downloads, and more via Mendeley, PubMed, SlideShare, Facebook, blogs, and other outlets.

Leading altmetrics products include: Altmetric, providing analysis of single articles; ImpactStory, analyzing the output of individual researchers; and Plum Analytics, extending analysis to the institutional level by partnering with Pitt. Publishers PLoS, Nature, BMC, Scopus, and others present altmetrics with individual articles.

Learn more about altmetrics from the Impact Metrics section of the HSLS Scholarly Communication LibGuide. Also see the Altmetrics Manifesto by Jason Priem and The PLoS Altmetrics Collection (2012).

~Andrea Ketchum

1. “Toward a Second Revolution: Altmetrics, Total-Impact, and the Decoupled Journal,” Jason Priem/blog, video, 2012 (

2. Garfield E, “The History and Meaning of the Journal Impact Factor,” JAMA 295, no. 1 (2006 Jan 4): 90-3,

3. NSF 13-1 January 2013: GPG Summary of Changes. Significant Changes to Implement the Recommendations of the National Science Board’s Report entitled, “National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions,” Chapter II.C.2.f(i)(c), Biographical Sketch(es).