Can the impact of scholarly images be assessed online? An exploratory study using image identification technology



The web contains a huge number of digital pictures. For scholars publishing such images it is important to know how well used their images are, but no method seems to have been developed for monitoring the value of academic images. In particular, can the impact of scientific or artistic images be assessed through identifying images copied or reused on the Internet? This article explores a case study of 260 NASA images to investigate whether the TinEye search engine could theoretically help to provide this information. The results show that the selected pictures had a median of 11 online copies each. However, a classification of 210 of these copies reveals that only 1.4% were explicitly used in academic publications, reflecting research impact, and the majority of the NASA pictures were used for informal scholarly (or educational) communication (37%). Additional analyses of world famous paintings and scientific images about pathology and molecular structures suggest that image contents are important for the type and extent of image use. Although it is reasonable to use statistics derived from TinEye for assessing image reuse value, the extent of its image indexing is not known.