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The Impact Factor Obsession

Issue #73

Data, Numbers

David W. Onstad and Karen R. Sime wrote an article about “The ethical and social effects of the obsession over Journal Impact Factor” in the “Annals of the Entomological Society of America”.¹ While their examples are specific to their own specialized field, the general comments are broadly relevant. The authors cite a previous editorial that said: “The JIF was not created to be used in the scientific reward system, … It does not represent a quantitative measure of the relative value of an author or a paper to society or science.“² This is unusually plain language, and they follow up their comments with the following explanation: “... scientific publishing has also become a significant commercial activity, and JIF has become a competitive tool influencing business success.”¹ As always, money matters. 


One of their important claims is that “Publishers and editors who want journals to be considered superior based on a high JIF may be incentivized to treat submissions by other than scientific criteria. For example, they may reject papers that are unlikely to be cited …”¹ The authors cite several studies that “... papers by women are cited less than those published by men. Thus, editors may find themselves discriminating against female authors, consciously or not, in order to increase JIF.”¹ A related problem is that review papers get particularly high citation rates, which “... leads to misuse of citations through a careless reliance on reviews rather than original source materials”.³ “In fact, it has been shown that impact factor and female publication rate are inversely related for some journals possibly because women submit even fewer manuscripts to high-impact journals, or because women are less likely to be invited to write reviews than men (Conley and Stadmark 2012).”¹&⁴ 


The authors remind readers that Journal Impact Factors can be gamed and that the criteria for calculating the impact factors are not transparent. No one who has read about Journal Impact Factors over recent decades should find any of this surprising. What makes this article interesting is how bluntly they describe the problems. What the authors fail to say is that the reliance on JIF often stems from policies outside of the discipline or department, because administrators who make financial and hiring decisions far outside of their fields of expertise rely on JIF for lack of better tools. As Clifford Geertz wrote about the cannons of proof: “numbers normally carry the day”.⁵ They certainly do with JIF.


 

1: David W. Onstad, Karen R. Sime, The ethical and social effects of the obsession over Journal Impact Factor, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 2024;, saae013, https://doi.org/10.1093/aesa/saae013

2: Onstad DW. Journal impact factor is NOT a measure of scientific or social

worth of an article. Ann Entomol Soc Am. 2024:117(2):77–78. https://doi.

3: Cohnstaedt LW, Poland J. Review articles: the Black-market of scientific currency. Ann Entomol Soc. 2017:110(1):90. https://doi.org/10.1093/aesa/saw061

4: Conley D, Stadmark J. Gender matters: A call to commission more women writers. Nature. 2012:488: 590.

5:Geertz, Clifford, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Harvard, 1996, p. 18. 

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