PLoS ONE and the Panic Over Journal Impact Factor | Cool Green Science
"What is 'impact' for science, anyway? And could the ways we define 'impact' explain why we have less of it than we think we should? Case de jour: PLoS ONE, the world’s largest scientific journal. Its 2012 'impact factor' (the most widely used measure of a journal’s scientific influence — calculated by the number of citations a year’s worth of its papers receive elsewhere, divided by the number of papers it published that year) dropped a whopping 16% from 2011’s number, it was announced earlier this month. That magnitude of Journal Impact Factor (JIF) decline would be enough to make most scholarly publishers man the life rafts. Since publishing is so key to science, what makes up a scientific career — the hirings, promotions, tenure, grants — relies at least indirectly and many times directly on JIFs. So scientists need to publish in journals with relatively high impact factors…and hope those numbers don’t drop before they’re up for their next job. If you’re a scientist, you’ve almost certainly at least peeked at a journal’s JIF before submitting to it; you might even get a cash bonus when you publish to a high JIF one such as Nature or Science. No wonder the annual announcement of every journal’s JIFs in June by Thompson Reuters, the official toter-up of the numbers, is followed in some circles like Selection Sunday for March Madness. So it’s a safe bet no champagne was popped in the PLoS ONE offices when their new JIF was announced. But scientists — including conservation scientists — weren’t happy, either. PLoS ONE — a free-to-read, online-only, fast-turnaround, data- and graphics-friendly science journal whose 2006 debut cut shook up a scholarly culture used to snooty editors, $1,000-and-up annual journal subscriptions and glacial manuscript reviews — has become a favorite submission destination for many researchers who have papers that could make a splash. I recommend it to Conservancy scientists for articles that have color graphics and potential media impact. PLoS One does graphs and charts well, is followed closely by science media, and has a competent and aggressive media relations staff. In addition, it doesn’t cost much to publish there, and even less for developing country authors. Unfortunately, PLoS ONE’s JIF will continue to drop because of the very way it does business, according to Phil Davis, a publishing analyst and contributor to the group blog Scholarly Kitchen. Davis argues that PLoS One’s first strong JIF in 2009 (4.351) brought a slew of submissions in 2010 from researchers looking to capitalize on that number. And since PLoS ONE now publishes tens of thousands of those submissions annually (23,464 last year, to be precise), it doesn’t have the tight editorial selectivity of a Nature or a Science necessary to ensure it only selects potentially high-citation papers. So that Impact Factor will keep dropping, because any one high-impact paper will be lost in a sea of thousands. In essence, Davis is saying, PLoS ONE will continue to be victimized by its early success and its all-comers philosophy. He predicts a decline in megajournals like PLoS ONE and a return to discipline-based journals that have sped up their review cycles and added altmetrics without corresponding declines in JIF. Mother of jargon, is this the end of PLoS ONE? A better question might be: Is this the end of JIF? JIF’s value has been debated for years, but it’s never been under such systematic attack as now. A statement signed in May by more than 8,000 scholars and 300 institutions called the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) calls for an end to using journal-based metrics such as JIF in decisions about scientific funding, appointments and promotions. But here’s the shock: Now, there’s a growing body of evidence that JIF isn’t a particularly good measure of impact — and might even contraindicate it. As George Lozano writes for the London School of Economics blog, the strength of the relationship between a journal’s Impact Factor and any one of its individual paper’s citations rates has been dropping since 1990 — when the Internet began untethering papers from journals and search made journal provenance largely moot ..."