Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Scientists Curse the Name Eugene Garfield: Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield seems like a likable enough name, if one that brings to mind images of a fat cat eating lasagna. However at a recent departmental retreat during a science trivia game, his name came up as one to curse. This is of course because he is credited for subjecting us to the terror of the Impact Factor.

A much better method for calculating impact factor, in my humble opinion.
The further you advance into the wonderful world of academia and science, the more aware you become of the hefty weight of the impact factor. For those of you unfamiliar with it, impact factor is a numerical rank applied to journals based on the number of citations they receive in a year (not unlike google's page rank, calculated based on links back to your page). Top journals, Science, Nature, NEJM etc have high impact factors, and it is therefor more desirable to publish in them, as they increase the likelihood your own work will be cited and deemed influential.

However impact factor wasn't intended as a tool for scientists per say, but rather for libraries to determine which journals to purchase. It bears in mind to remember that while impact factor means something about the rank of a journal, it does directly reflect the quality of all the science published within.

And scientists, in of themselves, do not have impact factors.

Except wait, I was at a meeting in Toronto this past week and the way people were talking, it seemed like we did.

In the increasingly competitive realm of academia (only 15% of PhDs will attain the coveted tenure track position one day) a numerical ranking of job applicants may seem like a great idea. Much like a GPA for those of us who are no longer taking classes, our CVs are being read like transcripts. You may be asked to include the impact factor (quoted to up to 3 decimal pts!) of the journal of each of your publications, add or average them up and your potential employers have a simple way to rank all their applicants.

While the value of publishing peer reviewed papers in high impact journals should not be understated (and anyone of us may be willing to sell our souls for a Nature paper) should a scientist's value really be quantified this way? Increasingly the science community has called for better understanding of the true meaning of impact factor and rallied against its prominence as an evaluative tool of science and scientists. Recently, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, editors and publishers met in San Francisco to outline suggestions for moving away from the impact factor.

The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)

And this past month, the editor-in-chief of Science wrote an excellent editorial on the topic.

Impact Factor Distortions

At the end of the day, science is rapidly becoming more multi-disciplinary and expansive than ever, and the research scientist, an individual who's value far exceeds only his/her publication record. So while the impact factor may not be all bad, it is important to remember it is certainly not all good either.


  1. I definitely agree with all of this, and yet of course at the same time would be over the moon with a Science or Nature paper :S

    I think the other important thing is the readership of a particular journal. Some journals are quite specific and if that is your area it would be better to publish there so your colleagues conducting similar research (or people applying your research in real world circumstances) actually read about your study.

  2. Did you hear that? It was my naivety smashing into a million little pieces. Holy Toledo, I thought ranking was finished once we got into the post-grad program! And ditto on what Loz says; if you've got a specific topic you're writing on, wouldn't publishing in a small but influential journal that your colleagues would read be better than something more widespread? Also, would this impact factor apply to conferences also? I just felt my job prospects slipping even further away...

  3. Oh my God! It seems like it going to be an amazing night! I hope you will have fun and make a tone of nice pictures of all your visitors!!! Maybe will help to write interesting stories about that night.


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