The use of highly cited papers (HCPs) to assess research excellence (RE) is widespread but the emergence of alternative metrics for assessing research impact has ignited debates on their role in measuring RE. This paper undertakes an altmetrics analysis of South Africa’s highly cited papers with a view to assessing the extent of online attention to these papers; the correlation between citation and altmetrics data and nuances in research fields, using conventional and altmetrics data. The Web of Science’s (WoS) Incites Essential Science Indicator (ESI) database was used to extract the metrics of HCPs while the online portal altmetric.com was used to obtain the altmetrics data for each HCP. The Pearson correlation analysis was used to determine the relationship between citation data and altmetrics of the HCPs. The results indicate that clinical medicine posted the highest number of HCPs but was behind Space Science and Molecular Biology & Genetics in terms of citations per paper. Only six fields recorded more than 100 HCPs. Overall, South Africa’s HCPs have the highest altmetrics presence in Dimensions followed by Mendeley, Twitter, Facebook, News Outlets and Blogs. However, each research field exhibited different patterns as far as online attention of their papers is concerned. The implications of the plausibility of using altmetrics in assessing RE in South Africa are offered.
Research excellence Research quality Research impact South Africa Highly cited papers Essential science indicators Citations Altmetrics
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