Recently, it seems some keepers of the zeitgeist are suggesting that publishers should avoid promoting their impact factors. From the Declaration on Research Asssessment (DORA) to certain voices in academia, various monitors of journal etiquette believe editors, journals, and publishers that promote their impact factors are in some way participating in a ruse or are doing something illegitimate. Some new journals, notably eLife, have publicly pledged not to promote their impact factors.
Such self-imposed restrictions seem akin to putting your head in the sand — a form of avoiding reality, which for journals includes being measured by things like the impact factor, circulation size, editorial reputation, turnaround times, peer review standards, disclosure rules, and more.
For me, journals wanting to promote their impact factors have no reason to apologize and are actually serving the academic community by making their impact factors known and easily obtained. After all, the impact factor is a journal metric. It is not an author metric or an article metric, but a journal metric. It simply states an average number of citations per scholarly article over the past two years. So, if a journal has an impact factor of 10, that means that, on average (with some disputes around the edges over what’s included and what’s counted), articles in that journal received 10 citations.
Just because some in academia can’t stop misusing it doesn’t change the fact that it’s entirely appropriate for a journal to use this measure.
So when Elsevier or the American College of Chest Physicians or Springer or Taylor & Francis or SAGE or Oxford University Press promote their impact factors, they are doing something very appropriate and helpful. And when Google — which has the impact factor calculation at the heart of its PageRank algorithm, thank you very much — promotes journal impact factors as a way of differentiating journals in search listings, they are also adding a helpful and proper signal to their search results.
Interest in impact factor remains intense for authors. Last year, David Crotty documented how posts that touch on the impact factor on this blog routinely receive inordinate and sustained traffic, signifying a persistent interest in the topic. As publishers are essentially providing a service to academia, promoting this useful differentiator is simply part of the service. Authors want to know it, so we make it obvious.
Part of what makes impact factor promotion problematic for some seems to stream from a misunderstanding of what the impact factor connotes — and this misunderstanding fuels other problems I’ll discuss later. At its base, the impact factor is just an average. Like other averages, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every article received the average number. But a batting average of .250 doesn’t mean that a batter will get a hit every four at-bats. The batter may go 2-3 games without a hit, and then get on a hot streak. An average temperature of 80ºF on June 23rd doesn’t mean that the temperature will be 80ºF annually on June 23rd. It may be 67ºF one year and 83ºF another, with a bunch of seemingly aberrant temperatures in between. Impact factors, since they are averages and not medians, mostly skew heavily toward a few big papers, while the rest trail behind.
Because of this, assigning impact to articles or authors is a misapplication of the impact factor. Yet, it continues to be used inappropriately in some settings, as a journal metric is elided into an academic metric.
For editors, reviewers, authors, and publishers, a higher impact factor is nearly always something to celebrate. While there are illegitimate ways to achieve a higher impact factor — self-citation, citation rings, and denominator manipulations — most impact factors increase thanks to the hard work and careful choices of editors, reviewers, and publishers. In some cases, a higher impact factor is achieved after years of dedicated work, new resources, and careful strategic choices. In short, a higher impact factor — one that increases more than the inherent inflation rate — is typically well-earned.
The impact factor for our flagship journal recently increased more than 30%. This increase is attributable to multiple improvements, including greater editorial selectivity and focus, better brand management, new product development, and stronger social media efforts driving awareness of our content. This is a legitimate increase achieved after years of coordinated editorial, publishing, and marketing efforts. It feels like something to celebrate.
Journals with impact factors that rank well within their disciplines are also the most desirable places to publish. They usually have achieved a virtuous cycle of editorial reputation, important submissions, strong review, careful selection, and consistently high standards for publication. Making it in a journal with these features is a positive sign for a researcher.
Where things diverge from rationality is when the impact factor of the journal is then assigned to the researcher in some way — an average is used as a proxy. This cuts both ways. For authors of a highly cited paper, the impact factor of the journal may under-represent the actual citations for the paper. For authors of a more typical paper, the impact factor will overstate the citations.
The majority of DORA is absolutely correct, including the point above, which DORA states as:
Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions.
But when DORA calls for publishers to cease promoting their impact factors as the “ideal” way to solve the problems with academia’s misuse of the metric, that seems an overreach. Publishers who buy into this line of thinking aren’t doing anyone any favors, as their tacit acceptance of a conflated use of the metric only clouds the waters further and seems to confirm DORA’s overreach. If you’re running a journal, you should know and make others aware of your impact factor.
Journal impact factors are useful, but like any tool, they should be used correctly. They represent an average for a journal. They change. They can be trended. There are other measures that can be used to complement or contextualize them. Impact factors are journal-level metrics, not article-level or researcher-level metrics.
So, if you have a good impact factor, promote it. But if you don’t edit or publish a journal, don’t borrow the impact factor and use it to imply something it wasn’t designed to measure.