Noam Chomsky

We’re all familiar with traditional citation metrics: you measure references to books, articles, and people, and those references occur in other books and articles. For example between 1980 and 1992, according to this article, the linguistics maven Noam Chomsky was the most cited living person in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.

But what do those measurements mean now, in an age when, for example, the whole of In Search of Lost Time is being retweeted? Is it time to broaden our idea of metrics, even of citation itself?

We’ve been thinking about this issue at IHR Digital. We’re being asked, reasonably enough, to demonstrate the impact of our work on the academic community, but the question of what counts towards impact is an open one. For example, we were very pleased to see recently that British History Online, our digital library, was ranked 83rd of all websites worldwide in terms of citation on Wikipedia. Apart from London’s Natural History Museum, BHO is the highest-ranked of any academic site on this metric. What makes this more gratifying is that we don’t know who added the BHO links to Wikipedia: it seems to have been a perfect example of spontaneous crowdsourcing.

You might argue that this has got nothing to do with academia. But our research on the digital methodology of historians suggests that many of them are happy to go to Wikipedia to collect references for a topic.

A bigger question for us at IHR Digital is, if a researcher finds a BHO article via Wikipedia, or anywhere else, do they cite BHO in their published output? Many, we know, prefer to convert their reference to the original print book (even if they never used it). This undermines our efforts to demonstrate impact.

Of course we’re not the only ones thinking about this problem. A recent blog post by Judy Luther discusses what has been called ‘altmetrics’, and work that has been done by a number of people in this area.

I’m not sure how Chomsky would score in altmetrics, but when it comes to Twitter citations it seems that he’s not keen.