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The dominance of impact factors

Journal impact factors now play a major role in determining the path of scientific careers, with researchers working hard to get into the highest-ranked journals. However, since impact factors are simply an averaged measure of the number of citations received by all the papers published in a journal over a two year period, they are clearly too broad a measure with which to judge the quality of an individual scientist’s work.

Nobel Laureates speaking at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events often express concerns about an over-reliance on impact factors, and offer advice to scientists who are dealing with the pressure of publication.


Why were impact factors developed?

Randy Schekman explains how impact factors were designed as a tool to help libraries select which journals to subscribe to, not as a way to judge individual researchers. He points out flaws in the metric, including the fact that original discoveries take time to recognise. Impact factors are a measure of the yearly average number of citations for papers published in the previous two year period. Yet Schekman points out that it took one of his early influential papers 7 years before it became widely cited, far too long a timescale to be reflected in the journal impact factor.


How important is a journal’s impact factor?

Peter Doherty believes that impact factors are skewing science, causing journal editors to select papers based on what is going to be popular. Instead he suggests targeting a journal where people in your field are going to read your work.


Is publication in a high impact-factor journal essential for a Nobel Prize?

Martin Chalfie analysed which journals Nobel Laureates had published their seminal work in, and came out with some surprising results.


What’s your advice about publishing in high impact-factor journals?

Bruce Beutler stresses that a scientist’s primary objective is to do high-quality research, which is more important than where that work is published. However, he believes that the journal matters too, so offers advice about how to decide where to publish.


Should scientists be promoted if they publish in high-profile journals?

Paul Nurse explains why institutions should judge scientists based on an intimate knowledge of their research, and not rely on the journals they have published in. There are many reasons why the most important research doesn’t end up in high impact-factor journals.


What’s an alternative to impact factors?

Randy Schekman suggests that every researcher should write an impact statement describing their key discoveries. These could serve as the basis for short-listing candidates from a large number of applications.


These videos were filmed at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events delivered in partnership with AstraZeneca.


First published in October 2020

To cite this section
MLA style: The dominance of impact factors. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Sat. 2 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/impact-factors/>

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