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.