Impact factor: what are WE going to do about it?

What are we going to do about the impact factor, collectively and individually?

Impact factor: what are WE going to do about it?

By Dr Jeffrey V. Lazarus, Secretariat Director, Health Systems Global, and Senior Researcher, CHIP, Centre for Health and Infectious Disease Research, Rigshospitalet, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Through a new non-exclusive affiliation with BMC Health Services Research, announced a few months ago, Health Systems Global members can have publication charges reduced when they publish in many of BioMed Central’s numerous open-access journals. Even though the affiliation is an exciting development for our organisation, I have found myself wondering if some members might be unimpressed because BMC Health Services Research has an impact factor of “only” 1.659.

Other authors have capably discussed how and why the impact factor is being misused; see for example “Causes for the Persistence of Impact Factor Mania” and “Thinking Beyond the Thomson Reuters ‘Impact Factor’ ”. I would like to focus here on two issues that make this a matter of particular concern for the health systems field. (Disclosure: I am a section editor of BMC Health Services Research.)

First, efforts to improve health system functioning require robust evidence from many areas of medicine and public health. Policy-makers at all levels of health systems may draw on knowledge from various niches. If misuse of the impact factor is discouraging a broad range of scientists from striving to constantly redefine the cutting edge in their areas of expertise, then the evidence base guiding health system-wide decisions will suffer.

Secondly, what are the implications of the fact that health systems researchers are generally not the most-cited researchers? Consider this: among the ten journals that a 2014 article by Qiang Lao and colleagues identified as being the top publishers of health systems research papers, there is nary a current impact factor score above five. In contrast, the four highest-ranking oncology journals all have impact factors above 20!

If the worth of a health systems researcher’s contribution to improving human health is to be compared to other types of researchers’ contributions on the basis of impact factor scores, then we need to consider the ways in which we may be denied opportunities to contribute. And what of the effect of impact factor rankings on students’ choices of mentors, and ultimately of career paths? Health Systems Global has emphatically indicated its commitment to nurturing the next generation of health systems researchers. Mightn’t challenging the dominance of the impact factor help to advance this agenda?

This leads me to ask: what are we going to do about the impact factor, collectively and individually? I appeal to you to take on this question as a personal challenge.

In the interest of leading by example, I’ll go first. At times I have agreed to collaborate on studies that were unlikely to be of interest to journals with an impact factor above two. I have done this because in each instance I believed in the merits of the undertaking and felt that I had valuable knowledge and skills to contribute. I pledge to continue such collaborations for the duration of my career.

Next? Please share your ideas – let’s inspire each other!

A longer version of this blog can be found at http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcseriesblog/2015/02/25/the-impact-factor-ill-effects-on-health-systems-work-what-can-we-do/

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