Why is Impact Factor so important? Knowledge Base

Cogent OA has written previously about the role played by a journal Impact Factor in the measurement and ranking of academic journals, and some of the limitations in using the Impact Factor to judge the impact of individual articles or compare journals across different academic disciplines. But why does the journal Impact Factor remain such an important motivator for many individual researchers and authors?

Career advancement

The Impact Factor no doubt frequently functions as a standard measure of quality among academic journals and serves as a means to facilitate comparison between competing journals within the same discipline. But the means by which IF is calculated determines only the overall journal impact at a single point in time, rather than the evolving impact of individual articles published within that journal. However, Open Science echo the reality that “despite the strong conviction that the Impact Factor does not measure the value of a scientific article, it can still influence the reputation of researchers and have an influence on their careers” [1].

Publishing in a high-impact journal undoubtedly enhances the future career prospects for an academic in many fields, strengthening the researcher’s ability to secure funding for further research (such as this example here). This is reinforced by initiatives such as the UK government taking steps to ensure that “metrics, rather than peer-review … [should] be a central quality index” [2]. This is a strong incentive for authors wanting their work to be printed in a top-ranking publication, irrespective of other considerations that can and should positively influence career success in academia. Michael Eisen writes:

“Encouraging the people we train to focus so exclusively on journal titles as the determinant of their success downplays the many other factors that play into these decisions: letters of recommendation, how effectively they communicate in person, and, most importantly, the inherent quality of their science … the quality of the underlying science and candidate matter a lot – and in most cases are paramount.” [3]

As Thomson Reuters points out, when judging individual academic “tenure”, it is in fact wrong “to use the impact of the source journal to estimate the expected frequency of a recently published article … Impact Factor should be used with informed peer review.” [4]

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, has also written:

“I am concerned by the tendency within academic administrations to focus on a journal’s Impact Factor when judging the worth of scientific contributions by researchers, affecting promotions, recruitment and, in some countries, financial bonuses for each paper. Our own internal research demonstrates how a high journal Impact Factor can be the skewed result of many citations of a few papers rather than the average level of the majority, reducing its value as an objective measure of an individual paper.” [5]

The problem of leaning on citation counts alone to measure research quality has led to initiatives like the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment trying to address the issue. The San Francisco Declaration argues for the “pressing need to improve the ways in which the output of scientific research is evaluated by funding agencies, academic institutions, and other parties” [6]; writers like David Colquhoun and Stephen Curry also argue that the Impact Factor is a “false measure of prestige” [7] for academics. Stephen Curry, writing for New Scientist.com, states that “impact factors apply to journals as a whole, not individual papers or their authors … [but] scientists are still judged on publications in high-impact journals; funding and promotion often depend on it” [8].

Other measures of impact

Academics should be aware of the limitations in using Impact Factor as the sole means of determining a journal’s influence and, crucially, the impact of all articles published in it. Each article may impact in different ways, on different communities, and at different rates, and these nuances cannot be captured in a single, journal-level measure. The internet and advances in digital technology has enabled new, article-level metrics to emerge that measure citation and engagement with readers in a variety of new ways – proving an important complement to traditional journal-level measures.

As an open access and multi-disciplinary series, for instance, all articles published in Cogent OA journals receive worldwide visibility and readership by audiences across diverse disciplines and through article-level metrics enable you, as an author, to see how your article impact evolves over time.

Read more about how publishing with Cogent OA can bring your work to a global readership and support a dynamic view of its impact through open access, or visit our journals list to see how article reads, citations and shares are tracked for our authors.


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Things you might not know about Impact Factor

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Is Impact Factor here to stay?


[1] Open Science. 2013. 'The Big IF: Is Journal Impact Factor Really So Important? | Open Science'. http://openscience.com/the-big-if-is-journal-impact-factor-really-so-important/.

[2] Universities UK. 2015. 'The Use Of Bibliometrics To Measure Research Quality In UK Higher Education Institutions'. Universities UK. http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2007/Bibliometrics.pdf.

[3] Eisen, Michael. 2015. 'The Widely Held Notion That High-Impact Publications Determine Who Gets Academic Jobs, Grants And Tenure Is Wrong. Stop Using It As An Excuse.'. Michaeleisen.Org. http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=911#sthash.ydF30Axu.dpuf.

[4] Thomson Reuters. 2015. 'The Thomson Reuters Impact Factor - IP & Science - Thomson Reuters'. Wokinfo.Com. http://wokinfo.com/essays/impact-factor/.

[5] Campbell, Philip. 2008. 'Escape from the impact factor'. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics. http://www.int-res.com/articles/esep2008/8/e008p005.pdf.

[6] The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). 2015. 'The San Francisco Declaration On Research Assessment (DORA)'. http://am.ascb.org/dora/.

[7] 2015. 'Sick Of Impact Factors'. Reciprocal Space. http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2012/08/13/sick-of-impact-factors/.

[8] Curry, Stephen. 2015. 'Set Science Free From Publishers' Paywalls'. New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21937-set-science-free-from-publishers-paywalls.html?full=true#.VUjF4_lVhHw.