What if I told you that nearly 90 percent of the publications which have profoundly influenced the life sciences did not appear in a high-impact factor journal? If you signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, you probably aren’t surprised. If you haven’t signed DORA, it may be time for you to reconsider the connection between true breakthrough papers and so-called journal impact factors (JIFs).

Today we received strong evidence that significant scientific impact is not tied to the publishing journal’s JIF score. First results from a new analytical method that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is calling the Relative Citation Ratio (RCR) reveal that almost 90% of breakthrough papers first appeared in journals with relatively modest journal impact factors. According to the RCR, these papers exerted major influence within their fields yet their impact was overlooked, not because of their irrelevance, but because of the widespread use of the wrong metrics to rank science.

In the initial RCR analysis carried out by NIH, high impact factor journals (JIF ≥ 28) account for only 11% of papers that have high RCR (3 or above). Here is hard evidence for what DORA supporters have been saying since 2012. Using the JIF to credit influential work means overlooking 89% of similarly influential papers published in less prestigious venues.

The RCR is the creation of an NIH working group led by George Santangelo in the Office of the NIH Director. Santangelo has just uploaded an article in the Cold Spring Harbor BioArchive repository describing the RCR metric. I believe that the Santangelo proposal would significantly advance research assessment.

This marks a significant change in my own thinking. I am firmly convinced that no single metric can serve all purposes. There is no silver bullet in research evaluation; qualitative review by experts remains the gold standard for assessment. And yet I would bet that this new metric will gain currency, contributing to a new and better understanding of impact in science. The RCR provides us a new sophisticated analytical tool, which I hope will put another nail into the coffin of the phony metric of the journal impact factor. As I and many others have said many times, the JIF is the wrong way of assessing article-level or, even worse, individual productivity.

So, what is this new RCR metric? The Relative Citation Ratio may seem complicated at first glance but the concept is simple and very clever. Key to the RCR is the concept of co-citation network. In essence, this new metric compares the citations an article receives to a custom-built citation network which is relevant to that particular paper. The relevant network is defined by the entire collection of papers which are referenced in the papers that cite the reference paper. All this constitutes the denominator of the RCR, while the numerator is simply the citations received by the reference article.

The values used to calculate the denominator of the defined citation network are based on the Journal Citation Rate (JCR), which is also used to compute in journal impact factor. But it is important to note that the RCR, besides being based on the co-citation network, places the journal metric, the JCR, NOT at the numerator, but at the denominator. This makes this new RCR a robust article-level metric normalized to the citations in the custom-built field of relevance and to the expected citations that journals receive in that network. The RCR is then normalized to make comparisons easier. To do so the authors use the cohort of NIH R01 funded papers as the benchmark set.

NIH will provide full access to the algorithms and data to calculate the RCR, making this a highly transparent and accessible tool for the whole scientific community. This is a fundamental change in assessment and it is incredibly exciting.

I am not a bibliometrician, so I don’t pretend to have all the skills to evaluate the metric algorithm in detail. But I am familiar with research evaluation and, after reading this paper carefully, I am convinced it adds something important to our toolbox in the thorny field of research assessment. I am reminded by something that the legendary Nobel laureate Renato Dulbecco once told me: Based on the JIF metric not only would Dulbecco have never been awarded the Nobel Prize, but he probably would have never gotten a job, since his landmark papers were published in rather obscure journals.

This is exactly the point underscored by this new RCR analysis. Often highly innovative ideas—new concepts, technologies, or methods— may be of immediate interest only to a very small group of scientists within their highly specialized area. These seemingly arcane advances attract little notice outside that subfield. Yet on the meandering roads of research, an obscure breakthrough with seemingly little relevance to outsiders may reorient the field. What began with a curiosity-driven observation reported in an obscure journal may roll on to become a landmark discovery. I believe the RCR addresses this problem. My concerns about miracle metrics were assuaged by NIH’s careful benchmarking of the RCR, using expert qualitative review of the RCR scored papers that reported strong concordance.

After years of blasting one-size-fits-all metrics, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of cheering for a new one. Yes, the RCR must be road tested further. It must be tried in multiple fields and situations, and modified, if necessary, to address blind spots. And I still hold that qualitative review by experts remains the gold standard for individual assessment. But from this early report by the Santangelo group, I am convinced that here is a metric that reflects how science really evolves in laboratories, scientific meetings, and in obscure journals. It evaluates science by putting discoveries into a meaningful context. I believe that the RCR is a road out of the JIF swamp.

Well done, NIH.

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Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science. Email: sbertuzzi@ascb.org

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