Thursday, October 08, 2015

Publication delays ARE aimed at manipulating impact factor!

A few months ago, I wrote a post with a question: Are publication delays aimed at manipulating impact factor?

Today, I have an answer to that question: yes.

A recently published article, "Editors’ JIF-boosting stratagems – Which are appropriate and which not?" (h/t RetractionWatch) investigates strategies that journal have been using to boost their impact factor and explicitly calls out what it calls the "online queue strategem."  The article is paywalled, so let me summarize here.  In addition to reviewing some of the better-known and clearly unethical practices used by some journals (e.g., forcing citations on authors, citation cartels), the paper carefully dissects the effects of having a long "online early" period of publication, finding four main effects:

  • Papers accumulate citations before "official" publication (multiplying by ~1.5 to 2)
  • Citation rates typically peak 3-4 years after publication, so shifting the time selects for a better citation date (adding another ~50%)
  • Queue order can be manipulated to publish the papers picking up the most citations earlier, (adding another ~30%)
  • Calendar-year boundaries mean that papers in early months count more than papers in later months, so strategic organization of early-month issues can further boost citations (adding another ~30%).

All of this adds up to around 5-fold potential distortion in impact factor.  Since the dynamic range of most journals is only around 0.5 to 10 anyway and even the very highest impact factor journals top out at ~50, this renders that most precious number completely useless.

Now, it's possible that many journals aren't deliberately and strategically manipulating their queues, meaning they'll only get about a 2x boost in impact factor from queuing.  So what?  It still means that impact factor is going to be highly distorted and basically only good for distinguishing journals into three categories: "glamour journal", "normal journal", and "ignored journal" (less than about 0.3).

Ironically, the article itself is dated February, 2016.

That's it: it's clearly time to adopt the wise strategy of my favorite satire journal, the Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science.  Their current impact factor? "Leadership"
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