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Journal Impact: Real, Imagined or Manipulated?

December 1, 2015

Written by Barbara Opar
Barbara Opar and Barret Havens, column editors

In the past few years, the term “impact factor” has become increasingly important in the tenure process in schools of architecture. However, the concept is not new. In 1975, the term was coined by Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information. During this time period, ISI began producing the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, the Social Science Citation Index as well as the Science Citation Index. These sources were used to ascertain how often certain articles were cited in the literature. But particularly in the humanities, this was just one factor used to determine the importance of a specific author’s work and research.

Impact factors are now weighted much more heavily in tenure deliberations. Our ever growing reliance on the internet and the ease of tracking citations is partially responsible. But certainly publishers have actively fostered this practice. Journal titles with high impact factors are viewed as more important publication venues than those with lower impact.

The impact factor is essentially a citation measure. ISI products include the Journal Citation Reports Database which annually publishes impact factor- but only for those journals indexed in the ISI databases.

How are impact factors determined? Traditionally, the impact of a specific journal is determined by the number of times specific articles from a two year period were cited. The number of times an article was cited is divided by the total number of articles published during that same time period. 

The calculation of impact factors in itself presents some debatable practices. How does the number of times an article was cited relate to its research quality? The journal impact factor only tracks the first few years of a publication. Currently, impact factors take into account more than just article citations. They track citations or the mere mention of an article in reviews, letters, editorials, meeting abstracts, and even notes. There is uneven coverage in many different disciplines and between disciplines.

But now, the November 5, 2015 editorial in Inside Higher Education is alleging that journal impact factors have lost their credibility.  Practices noted include editor coercion and online queues.

See the full editorial at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/05/editorial-says-journal-impact-factors-have-lost-credibility

The journal impact factor is likely to remain in place. But perhaps academia will turn to a more comprehensive way of evaluating research quality and consider other measures in addition to the journal impact factor.


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  • Association of Architecture School Librarians

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