What if you saved the world and nobody noticed? Okay, that’s overly dramatic (behavior analysis works to make the world a little better, but I’m not sure we’re quite saving it yet). But in the “Something Interesting” section of the ABAI Blogs I frequently argue that before behavioral solutions can be transported to wide use in the world, people have to become aware of the good work our discipline is contributing in the lab and in the field. I also argue that we have an obligation to notice them noticing us, so we can derive lessons about the kind of work that people value (and perhaps about how to communicate about it).
With those considerations in mind, here’s my annual list of behavior analysis articles from the past year that were most noticed outside of scholarly circles.
My metric of choice (because it’s convenient and objective, though far from perfect) is the Altmetric Attention Score, an amalgam of mentions in a variety of places dominated by non-scientists, including news stories, social media, blogs, policy documents, and more. Attention Scores range upward from 0 with no upper bound. Historically, an Attention Score of about 2 defines the median for all monitored articles, and a score of about 10 defines the 75th percentile. [For more on using altmetric data to monitor dissemination impact, see here and here and here. For posts addressing the dissemination impact of 2022 behavior analysis articles, see here and here and here and here.]
The table at bottom lists the 25 behavior analysis articles from 2023 with the highest Attention Scores as of December 31, 2023. All fall within the top 25% of the over 45 million articles currently tracked in the altmetric.com database. As expected, most of the articles represent applied behavior analysis, because that’s the focus of the most behavior analysis scholarship. Unsurprisingly, autism is prominently represented.
Here are a few further observations to accompany the table.
Journals that got the most attention
The pie chart shows the journals that published 304 articles that earned an Attention Score of at least 2. As in 2022, Journal of Contextual Behavior Science and Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis were the heavy hitters. As was also the case in 2022, a number of behavior analysis journals got very limited altmetric attention. Several saw fewer than five of their 2023 articles receive any altmetric attention (Education and Treatment of Children; Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, Japanese Journal of Behavior Analysis), and several others did not appear in the Altmetric.com database, suggesting an absence of altmetric attention (e.g., Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice; Journal of Behaviorology, Behavior & Philosophy, Journal of Precision Teaching & Celeration).
What Kind of Attention?
Twenty of the articles in the Top-25 table received the bulk of their attention in social media (mostly Twitter/X). Five benefitted from a combination of social media and news attention. Note that it’s completely expected that recently-released articles will garner most of their attention from these two sources, as attention from other sources can take from months to years to accumulate. Mentions in social media and news stories therefore are potential harbingers of other types of attention later on.
Attention Scores in Context
The top Attention Score for a 2023 behavior analysis article was 248. The good news: That score ranks in about the top 2% of the 25 million or so articles in the Altmetric.com data base. The bad news: That score is rather unimpressive compared to many other 2023 articles. For the Top 25 of about 2 million 2023 articles overall in the database, Attention Scores ranged from 6795 to 25727. In this larger distribution, the top behavior analysis Attention Score falls at about Number 12,000.
Perhaps the preceding is an unfair comparison since many of the journals achieving especially high Attention Scores are high-circulation, general-interest publications (e.g., Nature, New England Journal of Medicine). However, it’s interesting to note that among the top-scoring articles overall, especially prominent were topics related to medicine (especially COVID-19) and climate change — two areas where behavior plays a large role.
For another type of benchmark, I checked the Attention Scores of 2023 articles in 13 of what might be called “behavior analysis adjacent” journals — those in which behavior analysts sometimes publish and/or which share a topical emphasis with our core journals.** The graph below compares the top 50 Attention Scores of these journals to the Top 50 for behavior analysis journals. Across the board, “behavior analysis adjacent” articles got more attention, suggesting that our discipline has work left to do when it comes to earning a spot in the public eye.
** Behavior and Brain Sciences, Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior, Behavioral Brain Sciences, Autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Behavioural Processes, Behavioral Pharmacology, Behavior Therapy, Behaviour Research & Therapy, Physiology & Behavior, Animal Cognition, Learning & Motivation, and Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.
What Got Noticed
You might say that 2023 was the year we aired our dirty laundry in public — by which I mean that we discussed some contentious issues in print, and people noticed.
Before mentioning a few specific themes, that is, matters on which we are still trying to find our disciplinary rudder, let me say that I would always rather see us wrestle with change than stagnate. Applied behavior analysis has experienced several decades worth of bewildering growth in only the past 10 years or so. For instance, the number of Board Certified Behavior Analysts increased by over 500% between 2013 and 2023. With growth comes new challenges and, not unimportantly, new generations of behavior analysts whose perspective on the field might not match that of their older colleagues. You might say our discipline is currently trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up (at least with respect to practice). We absolutely need to discuss the relevant issues, and if outsiders take notice, so be it.
In scanning the Top 25 table you’ll see attention to compassionate care (in effect, practitioners being decent humans and treating others as such), and related matters such as how to talk most productively about applied procedures and how to implement those procedures with high levels of social validity.
You’ll see attention to whether practitioners receive adequate training, something that has been under debate for at least as long as certification has existed.
You’ll also see attention to the neurodiversity movement (about which I’ve written recently), some members of which have claimed that ABA does not treat others like humans.
And unless you slept through 2023 you’ll know that the year saw animus erupt over contingent electric shock as a form of treatment, something that pitted behavior analyst against behavior analyst in one of the more bitter arguments of recent years. Whereas in scientific terms punishment has been shown to be effective when used within certain parameters, critics, both within and outside of behavior analysis, regard electric shock as unkind, inhumane, or unethical (unsurprisingly, this one of the major touchstones of the neurodiversity movement’s assault on ABA).
If you read between the lines, it’s possible that some of the most noticed articles owe an unattributed debt to issues just mentioned. For instance, one article looked at client heart rate changes during functional assessment. This might be important in light of the neurodiversity movement’s claim that ABA constitutes torture and abuse. Were that the case, one would expect to see perturbations in physiological responses (like heart rate and respiration) that correlate with stress and discomfort. However, in this study no systematic heart rate effects were found, which to me suggests no objective basis for claiming that the functional assessment was stressful or unpleasant.
Closing Note: Attention Isn’t Necessarily Something That Just Happens
It’s definitely true that some scientific advances sell themselves. Journals and people who post on social media are always looking for good material, and if the work you’re doing happens to intersect with their interests, attention is going to happen. For instance, if science news websites are any indication, people obsessed with elephants, octopi, consciousness, climate change, astronomy, and brain-technology interfaces). Also dogs (implicated in 2022’s top behavior analysis Attention Score, and 3 of the 4 highest-scoring 2023 articles in the normally not-so-newsworthy Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior). That said, steps can be actively taken to promote science content in non-scholarly media — for instance, by producing and distributing press releases, to cite just one example. IMHO, we’d be better off as a discipline if this component of a dissemination repertoire were something that every researcher learns about in early career and uses strategically thereafter.
There you have it — 2023’s most noticed behavior analysis articles. In future posts I’ll say a bit about the specific kinds of attention that our articles received.
Top 25 Altmetric Attention Scores for 2023 Behavior Analysis Articles
As of December 31, 2023
Key to Journal Name Abbreviations
BAP = Behavior Analysis in Practice
BI = Behavioral Interventions
BM = Behavior Modification
BSI = Behavior and Social Issues
EJOBA = European Journal of Behavior Analysis
ETC = Education and Treatment of Children
JABA = journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
JCBS = Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science
JEAB = Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
JJBA = Japanese Journal of Behavior Analysis
JOBE = Journal of Behavioral Education
JOBM = Journal of Organizational Behavior Management
JPBI = Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions
POBS = Perspectives on Behavior Science
TAVB = The Analysis of Verbal Behavior
TPR = The Psychological Record