Impact Factor, the Yardstick for Publishers and Scientists - ‘Black Hat’ and ‘White Hat’ Methods

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(Science The previous story described the sigificance of impact factor and how it is calculated.  It is interesting to see how the impact factor of a journal can be influenced by even a few published papers.

In the Acta Crystallographica A, 2008;64(Pt 1) issue, a paper (page 112-22) titled "A short history of SHELX" was published with the abstract ending in the following sentence: "This paper could serve as a general literature citation when one or more of the open-source SHELX programs (and the Bruker AXS version SHELXTL) are employed in the course of a crystal-structure determination." This article was cited virally, and the journal impact factor rose from 2.051 in 2008 to 49.926 in 2009, more than Nature (31.434) and Science (28.103) (2009 impact factor accounted for articles published in 2007 and 2008). The article was cited 2391 times during the year 2009 and continues to be cited. However the second most cited article in this journal for the year 2009 had only 28 citations!

The SHELX article was not akin to emails that you receive saying if you do not forward this to 10 people in two days something bad will happen, because in spite of the prompt to cite, if the article had no value, no other scientist would have cited it.  According to an opinion piece on Thomson Reuters website, "It is clear that the journal published an article that has had an impact in the field (4893 of the citing articles  (by 2010) are in journals in the Crystallography category in Web of Science).  Such a marked impact, in fact, that it raised the journal to an unprecedented prominence in the literature as a whole."

Eugene Garfield Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield, Ph D.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

Impact factor and citations are not confined       to professional journals and articles. A similar algorithm is used by search engines to place search results  and determine the importance of each website on the internet.  Search engines consider one website more important than the other, if the former has more “organic” links pointing to it.  Organic links are unpaid links created on other sites due to the relevance and significance of the target site. One may also pay someone to create thousands of back links to his/her site, but search engines consider such a method ‘black hat’ and the organic method ‘white hat.’ When Dr Eugene Garfield started the Institute of Scientific Information (which is now a part of Thomson Reuters) in 1955, which made it possible to calculate impact factors, there was probably no concept of black hat and white hat techniques.

Recently there was a revelation in New York Times that someone had planted thousands of links for select keywords (such as ‘dresses’) on thousands of websites, all pointing to, so that when you type any of these keywords in Google searches, would  appear on the top. This is similar to self-cite  described above. Though JC Penney denied its involvement, JC Penney lost its Google ranking when New York Times brought this to Google’s attention.  There are Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts who may rig the ranking by building back links using such black hat techniques, and it is possible that some editorial practices may come down to the level of these SEOs. It is not clear-cut that how many of the editorial techniques used to increase impact factor are black hat methods.  The journals that get removed from the Journal Citation Report, as cited above, may stand as deterrent to such practices.

Now that the ranking for 2010 is released, most of the journal editors must be contemplating on how to beat the odds to get a better impact factor for next year. Beware, use only white hat methods!

Journal impact factors 2011 release

What does it mean to be #2 in Impact? Accessed June 30, 2011.

The Thomson Reuters Impact Factor  (for impact factor)  Accessed June 30, 2011.

Journal Citation Reports® Notices: Title Suppressions. Thomson Accessed June 30, 2011.    

The Dirty Little Secrets of Search. David Segal. New York Times. February 12, 2011.

White or black hat. Wikipedia Accessed June 30, 2011.       

Impact Factor.  Wikipedia Accessed June 30, 2011.     

 A short history of SHELX.   Sheldrick GM. Acta Crystallogr A. 2008 Jan;64(Pt 1):112-22. Epub 2007 Dec 21.

Reviewing Peer Review.   Bruce Alberts, Brooks Hanson and Katrina L. Kelner. Science 4 July 2008: Vol. 321 no. 5885 p. 15. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162115.

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Impact factor and open access

 PLoS ONE impact factor in 2010 release is 4.411. This is commendable considering the large number of papers published in this journal. According to an article in scholarlykitchen by Phil Davis, "In 2010, PLOS published nearly 7,000 articles and became the largest scientific journal in the world. Based on this trajectory, the publisher predicts 12,000 published articles by the end of 2011." The PLOS ONE model is definitely enviable but the bottom line is the cost involved in getting an article published in the journal.  $1300 is a lot of money for some labs. It is possible that eventually all journals may become open access, however one should be cognizant of the fact that research labs are running with thinner budget year after year.  Therefore, when investigators with scarce funding have to make a choice, they might be more inclined to choose free or less expensive journals to publish their articles. There are many such journals with higher impact factor.  The question here is, by publishing more number of good articles (12,000 by 2011) can the cost be reduced? By allowing ads on journal websites, can articles be published for free? It may be noted that most the journals have fully paid editorial staff, though reviewers are doing a free service.  Can non-profit journals attract more volunteer services? The eventual goal of open access journals should be to publish articles free. 
Admin;  July 3, 2011