Impact factors – used by all, liked by none?

In one of my next posts, I will explain a bit more about life in a laboratory in general, on how to do experiments, how the rocky road to get there looks like et cetera.

Right now, I’d like to complain. Yeah, let out some frustration that’s been building up. I want to talk a little about publications. Currently, I am not only writing my PhD Thesis, but also my first research paper as first author, helping with my first research paper as second author and am creating a nice review.

For those who are unaware of these kind of things: research papers are built around a research question – in my case, I studied an enzyme and asked how the reaction of this enzyme influences certain other proteins. Being a first author means that you did most of the work in the lab, usually wrote the manuscript and also had most of the ideas. (at least, that how it works here – anyone of you have other experiences, like only dealing with your bosses ideas or not writing it yourselves?) For the paper on which I will be second author, I only performed some experiments and accordingly only made those figures and written the text to explain. In the review, I provide a summary of the most recent publications in this field, since I spent a lot of time doing literature research and am thus able to provide a good summary helpful to others. The last author always is the PI. In between are others that have contributed in some way.

So far, so good. I am happy to be able to publish at least 3 papers – and most likely a 4th and maybe even a 5th are also coming up – from my PhD period. The problem now is, where do we publish these things? In a local newspaper, other researchers will not read it. In New York Times, most readers won’t have clue what this is all about. Not surprisingly, a lot of scientific journals exist. And a system has been developed to assess how good a certain journal is. The impact factor of a journal is calculated by dividing the  number of citations a journal’s gotten by the number of papers published. The higher the impact factor, the better.

This is however a flawed system. An erroneous paper but highly cited paper will boost a journal’s impact factor unjustly. Publishing many reviews with a lot of citations coming from the journal it is published in, will also boost its impact factor. Highly specialized research will not make it into the top journals since it is not interesting enough to a broad audience and thus expected not to be cited often; does this necessarily mean that the impact of such findings is less?! Interestingly, although often debated, a journals impact factor is still considered by almost every scientist preparing to publish.

Right now, I feel like submitting my work to any journal is a good option. Later on, when it’s been cited often, this will speak for itself as indication of importance, maybe more than just looking at a journals impact factor. Using search engines like PubMed, publications in every journal can be found anyway, not only the ones in the best journals! If only I could convince my PI of this point of view and finally send off my manuscript without waiting for another final experiment

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2 comments

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