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Impact Factor: Let's Be Unreasonable!

Brumback, Roger A.

doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e3181ba3a4c
Letters to the Editor

Department of Pathology, Creighton University School of Medicine, Omaha, Nebraska,

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To the Editor:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.—George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists.

Hernán is to be complemented for his hilarious satirical insights on the impact factor problem affecting the world-wide academic/scientific community.1 Unfortunately it is really not a laughing matter, as a very unscientific metric (Thomson Reuters impact factor) is being used to value (or devalue) scientific endeavors (and careers).2–4 The premise underlying Hernán's comments is that some editors have been able to manipulate the impact factor numbers that the behemoth media conglomerate Thomson Reuters assigns annually to scientific journals.3 One method for doing so is to “suggest” to authors that their manuscript make a reference to at least some recently published papers from the journal.

Hernán described a different method of increasing self-citations, by soliciting commentaries that cite articles from the journal, and then publishing letters-to-the-editor that also cite these journal articles.1 (Actually though, this method might not increase the impact factor value since the commentary citations would be in the same calendar year as the articles [noted also by Hernán5]). On the other hand, this would increase the “immediacy index”—which, however, is generally ignored, probably because the word “impact” connotes greater power). Thomson Reuters has determined that journals with too many self-citations will be excluded from the ranking system (a sort of “death penalty”),6 but the company does not provide rules about how many are too many, nor does it open the data for independent analysis.

The real tragedy of the impact factor is that the academic community and government agencies rank and venerate scientists and scientific organizations based upon these numbers. Scientists should be outraged that the worth of science is being measured by a secretive proprietary metric that as often destroys as much as it aids careers and scientific initiatives. Rather than following the thoughts expressed by Alfred Tennyson in The Charge of the Light Brigade—Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die—scientists should renounce the Thomson Reuters impact factor and agree upon a universal metric that follows the principles of science: precise, reproducible, and with openly-available data and analyses.

Roger A. Brumback

Department of Pathology, Creighton University School of Medicine, Omaha, Nebraska,

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1. Hernán MA. Impact factor: A call to reason. Epidemiology. 2009;20:317–318.
2. Rossner M, Van Epps H, Hill E. Show me the data. J Cell Biol. 2007;179:1091–1092.
3. Brumback RA. Worshiping false idols: The impact factor dilemma. J Child Neurol. 2008;23:365–367.
4. Hernán MA. Epidemiologists (of all people) should question journal impact factors. Epidemiology. 2008;19:366–368.
5. Hernán MA. A correction regarding bibliographic impact factors. Epidemiology. 2009;20:785.
6. Brumback RA. Impact factor wars: Episode V—the empire strikes back. J Child Neurol. 2009;24:260–262.
© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.