The impact factor might have started out as a good idea, but its time has come and gone. Conceived by Eugene Garfield in the 1970s as a useful tool for research libraries to judge the relative merits of journals when allocating their subscription budgets, the impact factor is calculated annually as the mean number of citations to articles published in any given journal in the two preceding years.

By the early 1990s it was clear that the use of the arithmetic mean in this calculation is problematic because the pattern of citation distribution is so skewed. Analysis by Per Seglen in 1992 showed that typically only 15% of the papers in a journal account for half the total citations. Therefore only this minority of the articles has more than the average number of citations denoted by the journal impact factor. Take a moment to think about what that means: the vast majority of the journal’s papers — fully 85% — have fewer citations than the average. The impact factor is a statistically indefensible indicator of journal performance; it flatters to deceive, distributing credit that has been earned by only a small fraction of its published papers.

But the real problem started when impact factors began to be applied to papers and to people, a development that Garfield never anticipated. I can’t trace the precise origin of the growth but it has become a cancer that can no longer be ignored. The malady seems to particularly afflict researchers in science, technology and medicine who, astonishingly for a group that prizes its intelligence, have acquired a dependency on a valuation system that is grounded in falsity. We spend our lives fretting about how high an impact factor we can attach to our published research because it has become such an important determinant in the award of the grants and promotions needed to advance a career. We submit to time-wasting and demoralising rounds of manuscript rejection, retarding the progress of science in the chase for a false measure of prestige.

« The way impact factor works »

A quote saved on Nov. 19, 2013.


Top related keywords - double-click to view: