Sunday, 14 June 2015

Impact Factor Ethics for Editors - Editors' Update - Your network for knowledge


Impact Factor Ethics for Editors

Impact Factor Ethics for Editors

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How Impact Factor engineering can damage a journal’s reputation

The dawn of bibliometrics

We’ve all noticed that science has been accelerating at a very fast
rate, resulting in what has been called ‘information overload’ and more
recently ‘filter failure’. There are now more researchers and more
papers than ever, which has led to the heightened importance of
bibliometric measures. Bibliometrics as a field is a fairly new
discipline, but it has seen an impressive growth in recent years due to
advances in computation and data storage, which have improved the
accessibility and ease of the use of bibliometric measures (for instance
through interfaces such as Sciverse Scopus or SciVal).
Bibliometrics are being increasingly used as a way to systematically
compare diverse entities (authors, research groups, institutions,
cities, countries, disciplines, articles, journals, etc.) in a variety
of contexts. These include an author deciding where to publish, a
librarian working on changes in their library’s holdings, a policy maker
planning funding budgets, a research manager putting together a
research group, a publisher or Editor benchmarking their journal to
competitors, etc.

Enter the Impact Factor

In this perspective, journal metrics can play an important role for
Editors and we know it’s a topic of interest because of the high
attendance at our recent webinar on the subject. There are many different metrics
available and we always recommend looking at a variety of indicators to
yield a bibliometric picture that is as thorough as possible, providing
insights on the diverse strengths and weaknesses of any given journal1. However, we are well aware that one metric in particular seems to be considered especially important by most Editors: the Impact Factor.
Opinions on the Impact Factor are divided, but it has now long been
used as a prime measure in journal evaluation, and many Editors see it
as part of their editorial duty to try to raise the Impact Factor of
their journal2.

An Editor’s dilemma

There are various techniques through which this can be attempted,
some more ethical than others, and it is an Editor’s responsibility to
stay within the bounds of ethical behavior in this area. It might be
tempting to try to improve one’s journal’s Impact Factor ranking at all
costs, but Impact Factors are only as meaningful as the data that feed
into them3: if an Impact Factor is exceedingly inflated as a
result of a high proportion of gratuitous self-citations, it will not
take long for the community to identify this (especially in an online
age of easily accessible citation data). This realisation can be
damaging to the reputation of a journal and its Editors, and might lead
to a loss of quality manuscript submissions to the journal, which in
turn is likely to affect the journal’s future impact. The results of a
recent survey4 draw attention to the frequency of one
particularly unethical editorial activity in business journals: coercive
citation requests (Editors demanding authors cite their journal as a
condition of manuscript acceptance).

Elsevier’s philosophy on the Impact Factor

“Elsevier uses the Impact Factor (IF) as one of a number of performance
indicators for journals. It acknowledges the many caveats associated
with its use and strives to share best practice with its authors,
editors, readers and other stakeholders in scholarly communication.
Elsevier seeks clarity and openness in all communications relating to
the IF and does not condone the practice of manipulation of the IF for
its own sake.”
This issue has already received some attention from the editorial community in the form of an editorial in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology5.
Although some Elsevier journals were highlighted in the study, our
analysis of 2010 citations to 2008-2009 scholarly papers (replicating
the 2010 Impact Factor window using Scopus data) showed that half of all
Elsevier journals have less than 10% journal self-citations, and 80% of
them have less than 20% journal self-citations. This can be attributed
to the strong work ethic of the Editors who work with us, and it is
demonstrated through our philosophy on the Impact Factor (see text box
on the right) and policy on journal self-citations (see text box below):
Elsevier has a firm position against any ‘Impact Factor engineering’

So, what is the ethically acceptable level of journal self-citations?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are
journals. Journal self-citation rates vary between scientific fields,
and a highly specialised journal is likely to have a larger proportion
of journal self-citations than a journal of broader scope. A new journal
is also prone to a higher journal self-citation rate as it needs time
to grow in awareness amongst the relevant scholarly communities.

Elsevier’s policy on journal self-citations

“An editor should never conduct any practice that obliges authors to
cite his or her journal either as an implied or explicit condition of
acceptance for publication. Any recommendation regarding articles to be
cited in a paper should be made on the basis of direct relevance to the
author’s article, with the objective of improving the final published
research. Editors should direct authors to relevant literature as part
of the peer review process; however, this should never extend to blanket
instructions to cite individual journals. […] Part of your role as
Editor is to try to increase the quality and usefulness of the journal.
Attracting high quality articles from areas that are topical is likely
the best approach. Review articles tend to be more highly cited than
original research, and letters to the Editor and editorials can be
beneficial. However, practices that ‘engineer’ citation performance for
its own sake, such as forced self-citation are neither acceptable nor
supported by Elsevier.”
As mentioned in a Thomson Reuters report on the subject: “A
relatively high self-citation rate can be due to several factors. It may
arise from a journal’s having a novel or highly specific topic for
which it provides a unique publication venue. A high self-citation rate
may also result from the journal having few incoming citations from
other sources. Journal self-citation might also be affected by
sociological factors in the practice of citation. Researchers will cite
journals of which they are most aware; this is roughly the same
population of journals to which they will consider sending their own
papers for review and publication. It is also possible that
self-citation derives from an editorial practice of the journal,
resulting in a distorted view of the journal’s participation in the

Take care of the journal and the Impact Factor will take care of itself

There are various ethical ways an Editor can try to improve the
Impact Factor of their journal. Through your publishing contact,
Elsevier can provide insights as to the relative bibliometric
performance of keywords, journal issues, article types, authors,
institutes, countries, etc., all of which can be used to inform
editorial strategy. Journals may have the options to publish official
society communications, guidelines, taxonomies, methodologies, special
issues on topical subjects, invited content from leading figures in the
field, interesting debates on currently relevant themes, etc., which can
all help to increase the Impact Factor and other citation metrics. A
high quality journal targeted at the right audience should enjoy a
respectable Impact Factor in its field, which should be a sign of its
value rather being an end in itself. Editors often ask me how they can
raise their journal’s Impact Factor, but the truth is that as they
already work towards improving the quality and relevance of their
journal, they are likely to reap rewards in many areas, including an
increasing Impact Factor. And this is the way it should be: a higher
Impact Factor should reflect a genuine improvement in a journal, not a
meaningless game that reduces the usefulness of available bibliometric


1 Amin, M & Mabe, M (2000), “Impact Factors: use and abuse”, Perspectives in Publishing, number 1

2 Krell, FK (2010), “Should editors influence journal impact factors?”, Learned Publishing, Volume 23, issue 1, pages 59-62, DOI:10.1087/20100110

3 Reedijk, J & Moed, HF (2008), “Is the impact of journal impact factors decreasing?”, Journal of Documentation, Volume 64, issue 2, pages 183-192, DOI: 10.1108/00220410810858001

4 Wilhite, AW & Fong, EA, (2012) “Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing”, Science, Volume 335, issue 6068, pages 542–543, DOI: 10.1126/science.1212540

5 Cronin, B (2012), “Do me a favor”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, early view, DOI: 10.1002/asi.22716

6 McVeigh, M (2002), "Journal Self-Citation in the Journal Citation Reports – Science Edition"

Author Biography

Sarah Huggett
Sarah Huggett


As part of the Scientometrics & Market Analysis team, Sarah provides
strategic and tactical insights to colleagues and publishing partners,
and strives to inform the bibliometrics debate through various internal
and external discussions. Her specific interests are in communication
and the use of alternative metrics such as SNIP and usage for journal
evaluation. After completing an M. Phil in English Literature at the
University of Grenoble (France), including one year at the University of
Reading (UK) through the Erasmus programme, Sarah moved to the UK to
teach French at Oxford University before joining Elsevier in 2006.

Impact Factor Ethics for Editors - Editors' Update - Your network for knowledge

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