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Journal impact factors: To cite, or not to cite?

At a brainstorming session on academic publishing at TAA’s June 2012 conference, a participant asked how to determine the most prestigious journals in which to try to publish. The panel’s advice: study the journal impact factors.

An impact factor is widely regarded as a measure of the journal’s importance in the particular disciplines which it serves. A journal’s impact factor is a measure of the average frequency with which articles in a given journal’s publication year are cited in that and other journals during the subsequent two years. The rationale is, roughly, that the citation rate of articles in a given journal, compared with the rate of “competing” journals, gives a metrical measure of that journal’s perceived importance in the discipline. Seems simple enough, but perhaps not.

A recent article in Science describes a practice used by some journal editors that is disturbing.

According to the article, individuals seeking publication in a particular journal report receiving strongly worded “requests” from editors that they add to their submissions citations from that journal even if the citations have little or nothing to do with their article’s subject. The editor’s intent appears to be to boost the number of citations for the journal in order to increase the journal’s impact factor—a measure of relative prestige in comparison with rival journals. View the full Science article.

The coercion appears to be mostly indirect and felt subjectively; the author feels that the suggestion is a thinly veiled “throffer”; an offer of acceptance made contingent upon the citation padding with an implicit threat that the article won’t be accepted for publication if the suggestion is not followed.

The practice is doubly disturbing. Not only is the author being coerced to make pointless citations, thereby making her article appear frivolously bloated with irrelevant material, but the integrity of the system of determining impact factors for journals is threatened with becoming corrupt. For, if a journal’s impact factor is manipulated to an artificial high, and that manipulation becomes known widely, the journal’s reputation is tarnished and evaluators of articles published in it come to regard its reputation as tarnished.

So, what to do to avoid journals whose reputations are in the process of being sullied? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Review the journal’s annual impact factor history. A steady increase of a few points each year indicates steady acceptance of its articles’ importance by the discipline; an abrupt spike in impact factor suggests either a deliberate manipulation or some artificial consequence of a particularly widely cited review article.
  2. Be extremely suspicious of editorial suggestions for added citations that make little sense to the value of your submission. If you do get such suggestions, question them with the senior editor.
  3. Monitor and manage your own tendency to self-citation. The reason for citing your own work ought to be that such citation provides access to important data without which your submission will be incomplete. You should resist the temptation to cite your own work as a way of boosting your own importance.
  4. Watch out for an increased rate of review articles in your prospective journal. While review articles are an important resource for authors, over emphasis on their publication can artificially inflate a journal’s citation factor.
  5. Be frank in your discussion with editors about your concerns. The more of us that resist subtle suggestions about padding our articles, the more likely journals will be to toe the ethical line.

Authors frequently don’t see themselves as integral to the integrity of the practices of publication. They should. Authors are not only the source of material for journals: they are journals’ conscience.

Richard Hull, Ph.D.