Impact Factors

Impact Factors#

Another problem that many scientists have with for-profit publishing is that individual journals are typically concerned with their reputation and, specifically, their impact factor. This is a score that reflects the ratio of the number of times papers in that journal are cited, relative to the total number of papers the journal has published. More citations of an article thus reflect more impact. Scientists often consider journal impact factor when deciding where to submit their work, both because of the prestige associated with high-impact journals, and ultimately because important career-related decisions (such as hiring, promotion, and grant awards), are often based on citations. A popular metric for evaluating the impact of a scientist is the h-index, which reflects the number of times their work has been cited (technically, h is defined such that the author has published h papers that have each been cited h times). Thus scientists anticipate that if their work is accepted by a high-impact factor journal, ultimately it will improve their h-index.

The concerning result of chasing impact factors is that journals will base decisions about which papers to accept (or even send out for review) not only on the scientific merit of the research, but on its anticipated impact. For example, as a reviewer I have received instruction from journals such as that the paper should be “ranked in the top 15-20% in terms of significance, originality, and design and quality of data”. While beneficial for journal impact factors, this exerts problematic pressure on scientists. Firstly, decisions are made based on the anticipated impact of a paper, by a relatively small number of people — which may or may not accurately reflect the actual impact the paper has when published. Secondly, it can lead to long delays in solid scientific work being published, if one or more journals review the paper and decide it doesn’t have sufficient potential impact, independent of its scientific rigour. Reviewers are typically given 2–4 weeks to provide a review, but are often late submitting reviews. Combined with the time it takes for an editor to find reviewers, this can mean that receiving a rejection takes a month or more (or much more, if the paper goes through more than one round of reviews before a reject decision is made). Combined with the authors finding the time to revise, reformat, and resubmit a paper to a new journal, this can mean that publication takes many months or even years after the research is completed.