Altmetrics are real-time measures of the reach of an individual research output through a quantified look at downloads, shares, views, etc. But how legitimately can impact be measured given global disparity of digital opportunities? By applying the Altmetric Explorer tool to research relevant to African development, Ernesto Priego assesses the digital landscape of Africa and the capacity for research to reach local audiences. While varying degrees of access to information and communication technologies are important factors to be considered and addressed, this does not mean that digital wealth is necessarily a pre-condition for online engagement.
When discussing the challenges and opportunities posed by alt-metrics, it can be easy to take for granted the cultural and infrastructural conditions required for their development, study, and use.
In this post I take a quick look at the concept of digital opportunity, some research on the uptake of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Africa and Altmetric details of two articles on Africa we located through the Altmetric Explorer.
Digital Opportunity and Digital Divides
A glance at the Digital Opportunity Map (2007) gives an idea of the lower digital opportunity experienced by most of the African continent in comparison to wealthier nations:
Digital opportunity varies from country to country but also within each country. Research shows that not everyone in Africa is affected equally by the digital divides. Alison Gillwald et al (2010) have shown that the limited access and constrained usage to the full range of ICTs by women in Africa can be explained by the high costs of infrastructure, highlighting the sub-optimal use of ICTs in the continent:
“Only relatively small numbers [of women] are able to access the Internet at public access points and large numbers remain unaware of it entirely. In a few exceptional cases women are more aware of the Internet such as in Cameroon, and have nearly equal access to Internet and mobile communications.”
And while it is often spoken of “Africa”, it is essential to emphasise that important differences of all sorts between its constituent nations (and within specific nations) make the digital divides even more complex. Alhadji Ly (2011) reports in a study on digital poverty in sub-Saharan Africa:
“Individuals living in countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Mozambique are more likely to be excluded from the information society and fall in extreme digital poverty than those living in South Africa.[…] The countries that occupy the bottom of the pyramid in terms of exclusion from information society are Mozambique, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia.”
The different degrees of access to the Internet and the Web are factors to be weighed in when considering the online attention that scholarly papers receive, but this does not mean that digital wealth is necessarily a pre-condition for online engagement between scholars and with scholarly papers. Evidence demonstrates African Higher Education institutions, NGOs and other tertiary sector organisations are engaging with different online platforms and promoting their use amongst specialists and the general public (Stevens 2012; EAC 2012; Phiri 2012).
There is important social media activity taking place in Africa, and there has been “great improvement in the Internet connectivity in Africa tertiary institutions” (Echezona and Ugwuanyi 2010). As indicated by Rosenberg (2005) and Echezona and Ugwuanyi (2010), many universities in sub-Saharan Africa in or near to major cities are or will be able to have terrestrial connectivity to each other and access to the Internet generally.
Nevertheless, in the set of 704,640 Twitter accounts tracked and geolocated by Altmetric over the past year African scholars are underrepresented (see table below). Altmetric tracks any accounts that have tweeted about at least one identifiable scholarly paper.
In “Mapping the Twitterverse in the Developing World: An Analysis of Social Media Use in Nigeria” Fink, Kopecky, Bos and Thomas (2012) tell us that “Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Nigeria (with over 4 million users as of October 2011, a 300% increase since early 2010)”. In their study Fink et al were able to determine the location for 398,534 unique Twitter users as being in Nigeria.
Needless to say these numbers need to be interpreted in context, considering economic and cultural factors, including native language and percentage of urban population, number of people in higher education, etc.
In “Traveling While Sitting Down: Mobile Phones, Mobility, and the Communication Landscape in Inhambane, Mozambique” (published 27 July 2012), Julie Soleil Archambault examined the ways in which young men in the city of Inhambane, southern Mozambique, harness communication to express experiences of constrained physical and social mobility.
A look at the online mentions of this article reveals that two people tweeted a link to the article. Though the fact might seem insignificant, it should be taken into account that both tweets came from the African continent: one account, with a potential direct audience of 301 followers, was located in Maputo, Mozambique, and the other, with 1249 followers, in Cape Town, South Africa.
I asked Dr Soleil Archambault (who received a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to conduct her research) on the importance of reaching local audiences:
“Reaching local audiences is part of what makes what we do worthwhile, though it’s often a challenge to address different audiences simultaneously. In my view the challenges in addressing these different audiences emerge perhaps more from the production side (what constitutes a relevant line of enquiry in a specific field) than from the dissemination side. It’s difficult to produce material in a way that is relevant for everyone and if increased access is a step in the right direction, it remains a partial solution to a problem that is not only practical but also epistemological.”
Another article from a different discipline but with potential interesting interactions is “Mobile Phone Text Messaging: Tool for Malaria Control in Africa” (Published 21 February 2012). Zurovac et al describe how
“across many malaria-endemic areas in rural Africa, the communication gap between managers, health workers, and patients is a significant barrier to efficient malaria control. The rapid expansion of mobile network coverage and the widespread availability of basic handsets have the potential to substantively bridge the communication gap.”
A look at the Altmetric details page tells us that there is not only been tweets from different countries sharing the article (including Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt), but also a Facebook share on the International Research and Training Center in Cameroon.
As usual, when looking at the Altmetric article-level details of different articles it is important to consider how long the articles have been available online and when Altmetric started collecting the data, if they are available from Open or subscription-only journals or repositories, etc., as well as the difficulties of obtaining reliable demographic data (most of the times constrained to metadata provided by social media users in their profiles).
Alison Stevens has argued that Africa faces “serious development challenges, and we want research to have more of an impact on the ground” (2012). Allison Fullard (2007) reported the challenges for the adoption of Open Access publishing amongst South African researchers, but the study signals to cultural, rather than infrastructural or economic obstacles. As part of her recommnedations to encourage Open Access publishing, Fullard suggests:
“It is possible that the success of local institutional repositories may send a signal to authorities that it is possible to harness technology to promote the visibility, accessibility and impact of local research. […] Faculty librarians can act as change agents by informing and advocating for open access within the departments they serve.”
The challenges for greater adoption of mobile communications in the African continent are defined to a great extent by economic hardship and social inequality. The digital divides haven not been blurred and the democratisation of access to ICTs and online resources remains an ideal, not a reality. The World Summit on the Information Society taking place later this year in Geneva will provide a much-needed update on the latest data. It seems reasonable to expect that bigger universities will be more likely to engage in scholarly activity on social media. It also needs to be considered that the popularity of social media platforms varies from country to country, and the fact that certain channels are not showing more mentions does not mean that there is no discussion elsewhere.
Though there is a need for more research on social media use in African universities, there are indicators that social media uptake is increasing, for example in South Africa (Moore 2009). The Connect Vuka Border inter-university competition, encouraging social media use across East African institutions, is an illustrative example. The fact that broadband penetration is gradually increasing and that research about Africa is being mentioned online at all by readers on the ground can offer glimpses of the role of online mentions to promote research.
In spite of the current limitations to geolocate online mentions in a completely reliable manner, demographics data obtained through the Altmetric Explorer can offer researchers around the world a window into who is mentioning their research online and where from. Having access to this data could work as a springboard for future interaction and potential collaboration with local audiences.
The author would like to thank Julie Soleil Archambault, Departmental Lecturer in African Anthropology,
Oxford University and Tomi Oladepo, Researcher on Digital Public Sphere, University of Warwick.
Any article-level metrics mentioned on this post were obtained using the Altmetric Explorer and the information was correct at the time of collecting the data. Social media moves quickly and live Altmetric article details and the data contained in the original dataset may differ to the ones transcribed in the body of this post. All other data has been attributed to their respective authors.
This article was first published on the Almetric Blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
About the author:
Ernesto Priego did his PhD in Information Studies at University College London. He is a researcher at Altmetric and from 2013 he is joining the Centre for Information Science at City University London as Lecturer in Library Science.