Thursday, 30 May 2013 14:02

Impact Factor Insurrection Catches Fire with Over 6,000 Signatures and Counting

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The "journal impact factor" rebellion is spreading. In the two weeks since it first went online, DORA—the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment  hat calls on scientists and scientific organizations around the world to minimize use of the journal impact factor (JIF) in evaluating research and  researchers—has seen the number of individual signers jump from 155 to 6,083 while the number of scientific organizations signing on has gone from 78 to 231.

These numbers were accurate at midday, May 30, but signatures continue to pour in to the DORA site. The 6,000th DORA signatory was Maritza Montero at Universitaet Regensburg in Germany. The 200th organization to sign was the Institute of Physiology at Guandong Medical College in China.

"These numbers—over 6,000 individuals and 200 or more groups—are arbitrary markers but extremely encouraging. I was expecting to reach 5,000 only in my wildest dreams," said Stefano Bertuzzi, Executive Director of the ASCB, which hosts the DORA declaration. "They demonstrate that the DORA message is resonating powerfully across the worldwide scientific community. The 'impact factor' obsession is warping the way science is practiced and now thousands of scientists and scholars are joining the original signers of DORA to say that the misuse of this flawed, inappropriate metric has to stop." Bertuzzi urged all who are connected with scientific and scholarly research to read and sign DORA.

DORA grew out of an ad hoc coalition of researchers, journal editors, and others concerned about the JIF and other citation algorithms who met last December at the ASCB Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The San Francisco group agreed that the JIF, which ranks scholarly journals by the average number of citations their articles attract in a set period, was warping the way that research in science and other scholarly disciplines was being conducted, reported, and funded.

A plea to the world scientific and scholarly world to sign DORA went public on May 17 with coalition signatures from 155 individuals and 78 organizations. Among the groups to sign DORA in recent days are research institutions or scholarly societies in Brazil, Venezuela, Qatar, Singapore, Switzerland, Belgium, Chile, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria. Scientific and scholarly fields now extend to agriculture, soil science, dramatics, athletics, psychology, veterinary medicine, philosophy, informatics, social work, taxonomy, and the history of science.

There are a number of citation ranking systems today, but the oldest and most influential is the so-called "two-year JIF" devised by Eugene Garfield's Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in the 1950s as a subscription-buying tool for academic and medical librarians. The JIF, which appears in Journal Citation Reports, is now compiled by the Thomson Reuters (ISI) Web of Knowledge.

The DORA insurgency, as it has become known, points to known defects in the JIF, distortions that skew results within journals, that gloss over differences between fields, and that lump primary research articles in with much more easily cited review articles. Further, the JIF can be "gamed" by editors and authors, while the data used to compute the JIF "are neither transparent nor openly available to the public," according to DORA.

The DORA declaration, however, was not intended as an attack on any one citation system, say the coalition organizers, but rather against the widespread misuse of these algorithms to rank academic job applicants, decide on promotions, and allocate research funding. The DORA declaration makes 18 specific recommendations to insulate scientific assessment from inappropriate use of journal impact factors.

In a response, Thomson Reuters said, "No one metric can fully capture the complex contributions scholars make to their disciplines, and many forms of scholarly achievement should be considered. The journal impact factor is singled-out in the declaration not for how it is calculated, but for how it is used."

The statement concluded, "Thomson Reuters continues to encourage publishers, researchers, and funders to consider the correct use of the many metrics available, including the journal impact f actor and data from the Web of Science, when performing research assessments."

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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