Interview with Marcus Banks

Marcus Banks is the Director of Library/Academic & Instructional Innovation at Samuel Merritt University. He has worked at the National Library of Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, and the University of California San Francisco. He has a strong interest in new and alternative methods of quantitatively assessing scholarly work, and that is roughly the subject area of the class he is teaching for Library Juice Academy next month: Digital Scholarship: New Metrics, New Modes. Marcus agreed to be interviewed here, to give people a better sense of what his class is about and what they will learn from it.

Marcus, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I’d like to start by asking you about your background and how you became interested in the subject of the class you’re teaching for us.

My first position was as an Associate Fellow at the National Library of Medicine (NLM). At that time PubMed Central (PMC), today the premiere biomedical literature archive, was much less-established. I worked to inventory the journals in PMC, with the goal of increasing the range of PMC titles. This exposed me to the idea that librarians can serve an “activist” role.

PMC was, and still is, all about the journal article. But since my time at NLM, the social Web has become a major force of modern life. People share knowledge via wiki or tweet, not always a journal article or book chapter. Altmetrics is an attempt to marry the social Web we experience in our personal lives with the still-more-traditional notions of conveying scholarly work. I hope my course gives students an overview of altmetrics, and ways to apply it to their own work.

Ok, cool. To back up a bit, I think maybe some readers may need to be oriented to what you are talking about. Altmetrics, and webometrics, are an outgrowth of bibliometrics, which some people in library science have said is the essence of the field or the area in which library and information science has actually made an original contribution to the world. The big measure in bibliometrics that a lot of people are familiar with is the Impact Factor (which is actually supposed to have a “TM” at the end, because it is trademarked). Do you want to say a few things about what bibliometrics is in general, and how it relates to librarianship? Then I think we can get into these newer developments.

Absolutely, let’s step back. Bibliometrics is indeed a major contribution of library science. It’s a means of understanding the reach of a scholarly work, generally by tracking how often that work is cited in subsequent work. The most predominant means of doing this since the 1950s, for the biosciences in particular, has been the impact factor. The impact factor is a ratio of an entire journal’s citations to its number of articles. It’s a journal-level metric, not article-level. It is my belief that the impact factor has served us well but has many flaws. The class will cover these in detail, and students will be encouraged to draw their own conclusions even if they disagree with the instructor!

So will your course offer an overview of more recent innovations in the field, or are you planning to go in-depth into a more specific system and teach how to use it? Is altmetrics a specific method or is it a general term? I know the term webometrics came into use as people began to work on methods of measuring the impact or use or significance of documents on the web.

Great questions, which offer the opportunity to put altmetrics into an historical context.

–Bibliometrics, one example of which is the impact factor, include both citation and content analysis of formal published literature. The term dates from the 1960s, although the impact factor is older than that. This course will cover the impact factor as well as the Eigenfactor. The Eigenfactor is a more recent metric than the impact factor, but also bibliometric in nature.

–Informetrics, from the 1970s, applies the principles of bibliometrics to any type of information…published or unpublished, formal or informal, enduring or ephemeral.

–Webometrics is an application of informetrics to the World Wide Web, and dates from the 1990s.

–Altmetrics, which will be the focus of the latter two weeks of the course, applies webometrics to scholarly research. The term “altmetrics” was coined on Twitter in 2010, supplanting the previous coinage “article-level metrics.” This evolution reflects differing approaches to altmetrics. Some versions of altmetrics still treat the journal article as the root unit of analysis, and supply data about how often an article has been blogged or tweeted as well as cited in subsequent work. Other altmetric tools treat portions of an article as the citable item, not just an entire article; and also track the penetration of blog posts and tweets. Thus, there is a plethora of approaches under the umbrella of “altmetrics.” This course will offer a broad overview of this topic, and give students resources for pursuing further investigation.

I think perhaps some readers’ eyes are glazing over right now, as this topic is rather technical. In light of that, I’d like to ask how much math will be involved in your class, and also how librarians might make use of these scholarly metrics in their work?

How could anyone’s eyes possibly glaze over at the thought of this topic?! No worries for those who might be concerned–very little math will be involved in this class. The impact factor and Eigenfactor are mathematical formulas, but it’s possible to compute them with user-friendly tools. Altmetrics, in its various manifestations, is a set of algorithms that do the computational work for you. PhDs in information science earn their degrees by delving into the intricacies of these tools, but that is not our purpose here. The goal is to describe how various tools work, and to encourage fresh thinking about how to value the scholarly literature. More concretely, a student could leave this class with an expanded toolkit for doing collection development–perhaps someone has only used the impact factor, and now wants to add the Eigenfactor to that mix. Or students would be able to use altmetrics tools to offer a more complete depiction of scholarly output at their institutions. During the final week of the course, students will have an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to their local situations.

Well, that sounds very good. I think it’s great that you will be teaching librarians about these tools. To finish up the interview, I’d like to ask if there are any other classes you would want to teach, based on other interests perhaps, given free reign. What would be your dream course to teach through Library Juice Academy?

I would love to do a course about “roles for librarians in the digital age.” That may sound hackneyed, or like a course that’s already being offered. But I’m very interested in how our profession will evolve in the next 50 years. The Web is every bit as disruptive as the printing press, perhaps even more so. Guttenberg’s invention eventually increased literacy, standardized book-making, and led to the development of our great research libraries. Similarly, what will the Web mean for us in the long-term? This is a question for which nobody has ready answers, but which we need to ask anyway.

I think that gives me an idea that I’d like to talk to you about later. Thanks for agreeing to do the interview – it’s been interesting, and it looks like a great class.

Thanks very much Rory. I’m looking forward to it.

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