The Impact of 'Impact Factor'


Impact factor has long been the benchmark upon which researchers measured the quality of scientific studies. It is essentially a measure of the average number of citations that articles published in a journal received in the past two years. This metric is typically a major consideration when organizations/institutions hire or promote individuals. Lately, however, there has been an increase in pushback from many investigators about the validity of using such a benchmark in judging science. This is mainly because it is seen as inaccurate, given that impact factor is influenced by a small number of highly cited papers and is not necessarily representative of the quality of the work published by the journal as a whole (see this article for more details).


Of course, the question is, what should be done to rectify the situation? In my opinion, this is a difficult situation to fix without some sort of easy-to-use metric that accurately describes the quality of the work published in a journal. While the pushback against impact factor is increasing, the number of viable replacements are not. And this lack of viable alternatives will hamper the efforts to do away with the impact factor as the go-to benchmark.


Moreover, I am not completely convinced that impact factor is an extremely inaccurate metric. While all of the papers published in Nature may not have citations that equal the impact factor of the journal, I think the work published in such a journal is more heavily scrutinized and has higher demands on quality than other low-impact factor journals. I think it is fair to say that high-impact factor journals publish outstanding papers, but not only outstanding papers (this is paraphrased from here). That said, I think if you look at the overall quality of the papers published in Nature, for example, you would see that it is much higher than a 'lower-tier' journal.


I think one of the major issues with these high-impact factor journals is the bias that many have for publishing work from highly cited and respected labs/institutions. There is much evidence indicating that it is considerably more difficult to publish in Nature if you are from a small university than from any of the Ivy League schools, regardless of the quality of the work. Likewise, new investigators will also have a more difficult time publishing in high-prestige journals.


Thus, using impact factor to make hiring/promoting decisions or to judge someone's research quality is probably a very flawed approach, however without a viable alternative I believe that it can be a starting point for a discussion of the quality of the work.

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