Journal Impact Factors: Part III

April 21, 2016

Dr. Jennifer C van Velkinburgh


Be aware of mis-informed and too vague interpretations


The JIF is a quantitative measure of a journal’s influence, but it can be subject to subjective interpretation and many confounding factors.


Journals with long established histories of high IFs can eventually garner a reputation of mythical proportions illogically based upon their very reputation, with the public actively overlooking obvious and well-known weaknesses in its publications. For example, high IF journals are the most difficult to get published in (i.e. they have the highest rejection rates and are the most competitive for authors to get acceptances), suggesting that they are publishing only the best and most reliable data. However, the truth is that they are often publishing the ‘sexiest’ data, which is inherently the newest in a field and the most likely to be incomplete and non-reproducible. As such, high IF journals have the highest risk of retraction (when a published paper is cancelled due to errors in the study design, data or interpretation or to misconduct).


Journals can manipulate or artificially inflate their IF. While a low IF is not necessarily bad (it may merely indicate a journal’s smaller, more focused audience or newer history), journals benefit from increasing their IF. Ways to improve a JIF over the long-term include publishing more reviews or expanding the topical scope. However, journals from the so-called predatory publishers, whose primary aim is profit with minimal to no concern for the integrity of the data they are publishing, employ short-term strategies, such as self-citation; encouraging or requiring authors to preferentially cite their own previously published articles will rapidly boost their citation record and their calculated IF. One way to combat this challenge is to look at the Cited-Only journal score calculated by Thomson Reuters, which subtracts out self-citations.


The rewards of attaining a high IF publication can be too great and can encourage misconduct. For example, some academic institutes have attempted to motivate their researchers to pursue and attain publications in high IF journals by providing a monetary reward that increases with each point of the IF. The monetary amount can be as much as one month’s salary for each whole value, with a publication in the highest IF journal yielding a monetary bonus of (54)X(monthly salary) – a one-time bonus equal to 4 ½ years of future work. Unfortunately, this excessive reward system promotes cheating, and complicates the use of ‘newly’ published research by interested parties, such as other researchers or expert witnesses in court cases. One way to combat this challenge is to not rely on ‘new’ data and investigate all of the authors of that paper for their previous publication record (i.e. What are the IFs of the other journals they have historically published in? How many overall publications does each have?).