If you’ve been around the scholarly journal publishing scene, either as an author or a librarian, you’ve likely heard talk of impact. Often, that’s impact with a big “I” – the Journal Impact Factor. Published annually each June by Thomson Reuters, the impact factor is a metric that ranks journals by the average number of citations to articles published in that journal in the preceding two years. Researchers look to it when identifying top journals in their field. Librarians look to it when making collection decisions. P&T review committees look to it when assessing journal quality and influence.

The 2012 impact factors were recently announced, and one journal in particular saw a precipitous 16% drop in its impact score from 2011 to 2012. The journal? PLoS ONE. Now, PLoS ONE is a revolutionary journal, and not just because it is open access. It is a massive, multidisciplinary, rapid peer-reviewed journal that has been making waves since 2006. It publishes tens of thousands of articles a year, and its early success – its impact – is only serving to increase annual publication rates. As one blogger explains, the fall in PLoS ONE’s impact factor is the victim in PLoS ONE’s own success.

But is it a victim? Notice that when I quickly explained the impact factor above, I noted that it is a metric, not the metric. Too often, impact factors are (mis)used as an evaluative tool to quickly assess a journal’s influence, and by extension, the presumed influence of an author’s article/research. But it only counts citation rates, and citations can be gamed. Citations also aren’t the only measure of impact, as not every use of an article will be cited in a formal publication. What about articles that get blogged? Tweeted? Facebooked? Picked up by news media? Shared by patient advocacy groups? Incorporated into classroom teaching? How are those legitimate impacts being measured? Not by impact factors, that’s for sure.

Enter altmetrics. Recognizing that the scholarly ecosystem has evolved beyond paper-based journal publication and citation to include online tools for discovering, indexing, and sharing influential articles, altmetrics “reflect the broad, rapid impact of scholarship in this burgeoning ecosystem.” ImpactStory and Plum Analytics are two altmetrics tools to aid researchers in assessing the broader, richer impact of their research. I don’t know much about either one, yet, but what I do know is exciting! In the coming months, I’ll be exploring altmetrics in greater detail, and expect to share what I learn with you here. Stay tuned!