People Don't Have Impact Factors

Seeing an academic publicly misuse the impact factor remains startling

People Don't Have Impact Factors

I attended graduation ceremonies at a major Boston-based university this past weekend. This university receives tens of millions of dollars in research grants annually.

The ceremony consisted of all the usual trappings — mortarboards and gowns, parents looking simultaneously harried and relieved, and graduates chafing to party and get on with their lives.

The events also included awards to various teachers and researchers. It was all very nice. The speakers were clearly visible thanks to a video feed being played on the huge stadium screens in the center of the facility. There were even captions running more-or-less in realtime.

In the midst of the ceremonies, a dean at this university introduced one researcher award-winner as having received “more than 5,000 citations to his works,” which gave him a “very impressive Impact Factor.”

My jaw dropped.

There it was. An actual, public example of academic misuse of the term “Impact Factor.” In front of thousands of people. With captions. To an audience that included graduating students, parents, and innocent children. From a lectern. From an authority figure in a robe with velvet stripes. At a major university. Without hesitation or apology.

As a reminder, people don’t have Impact Factors. Journals do. Last year, I wrote a long post on another site about the history, proper application, and accurate meaning of the Impact Factor, parsing the meaning to reveal more of its intent:

We accept the phrase “Impact Factor” without contemplating the implications of having a word like “factor” in the metric. Like risk factor, it is a bit of information, like a person’s age or weight might be in regards to their health. And the “impact” is related not to importance, at least in concept, but to discoverability. The factor relates to inbound discovery, not outward prestige. That is, the higher the Impact Factor, the better the journal is as a connector among relevant outside resources. It is important as a hub, as a hint within a discovery tool about where might be a good place to start looking for the information many people with expertise are talking about.

The Impact Factor is a measure of the centrality of a citable resource, not an author’s citations, an institution’s citations, or anything else. It’s a measure made for journals, and pursuing it has generally beneficial effects on editorial discipline.

I’ll end this brief post with the last paragraph of the first post I mentioned:

So, when you talk next about the Impact Factor, the history of knowing that it was misappropriated by prestige-seeking academics almost from the get-go, that is was meant to be a factor in an indexing and discovery service, and that it was a utilitarian measure of what’s recently interesting to a field might help explain a lot — why Impact Factors vary by field, why journals are what are being measured and not articles, and why its use as a measure of prestige always seems slightly “off.”

I actually think publishers need to promote the Impact Factor more heavily, rather than backing off. Unless we own it outright, it will continue to evade correct categorization as a journals measurement, and sloppy things like this will continue to be commonplace.

Have a good Monday!

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