Monday, 7 March 2016

Impact of Social Sciences – Accounting for Impact? How the Impact Factor is shaping research and what this means for knowledge production.


Accounting for Impact? How the Impact Factor is shaping research and what this means for knowledge production.

alex rushforthsarah de rijckeWhy does the impact factor continue to play such a consequential role in academia? Alex Rushforth and Sarah de Rijcke look
at how considerations of the metric enter in from early stages of
research planning to the later stages of publication. Even with
initiatives against the use of impact factors, scientists themselves
will likely err on the side of caution and continue to provide their
scores on applications for funding and promotion.

This piece is part of a series on the Accelerated Academy.

A number of criticisms have emerged in recent times decrying the
Journal Impact Factor (JIF) and the perverse effects this indicator is
having on biomedical research. One notable feature of these disgruntled
statements is they have often emerged from within the medical research
communities themselves. For instance it is now commonplace to read
denunciations of metric cultures in the editorial statements of eminent
medical journals, or bottom-up movements by professional scientists to
protest and reform the governance of science.

Despite these rumours, how the Journal Impact Factor intersect with
knowledge making practices of researchers on the ‘shop floor’ in
biomedicine is little known. Without detailed empirical studies it is
difficult to foretell of the actual and possible consequences this
indicator is having for biomedical knowledge work. For this reason we
set out to study this topic in a project we recently completed entitled
‘the impact of indicators’. We focussed on three kinds of research
groups in two University Medical Centres (academic medical schools) in
the Netherlands. Our ethnographic approach looked at groups in basic,
translational, and applied areas of biomedicine, a set of distinctions
commonly made within the field. These sub-cultures all exhibit different
ways of making knowledge (Knorr-Cetina, 1999),
and their varying interactions with this indicator in the course of
their day-to-day research practices was the focus of our analysis. This
included observing how the JIF entered from early stages of research
planning and collaboration to the later stages of publication.

jugglingImage credit: moise_theodor (CC 0)
The lab-based groups in the basic and translational areas exhibited
particularly tight coupling with the JIF as de facto standard for
measuring quality and novelty of their work. For this reason we will
briefly outline some of the most striking impressions we got from
studying these particular kinds of groups, focusing particularly on the
final stages of the knowledge production process i.e. publishing (for a
more detailed account of the production process in all three biomedical
areas see Rushforth and de Rijcke, 2015).

Whilst decisions and practices scientists make about their work
remain multi-dimensional, the JIF has become a kind of obligatory
passage point though which other kinds of considerations need to be
filtered. For instance, basic scholarly decisions such as the types of
audience one would like to reach with a paper, whom one should
collaborate with, and how much time and resources should be dedicated to
performing extra experiments, are all weighed up against the likelihood
it will land their end-product (i.e. a journal article) in a higher
impact journal. Such is the conviction that this is the currency
through which they will be received within their own group, peer
networks, department, by funding agencies and indeed the academic job
market, our informants could pursue this criteria somewhat religiously.
In one lab we observed a debate about whether to submit a manuscript to a
particular journal based on the fact it scored 0.1 of a decimal point
higher than the other journal being considered.

As intelligent and reflective individuals what did informants make of
being caught up in this process? Scientists must accommodate demands to
publish high impact work in order to get on and have a career. There is
little way around this. At the same as fulfilling these demands they
recognise ‘realities being knowingly eclipsed’ (Strathern, 2000).
Some were wise to the wider criticisms of the indicator in circulation,
be they technical or more sociological. Some decried the fact they and
colleagues were making arbitrary decisions about where to submit
manuscripts based on what was effectively a rather crude ranking
exercise. Others though offered tentative defences of the impact
factor’s effects. Indeed it is important not to paint the scientists as
simply passive victims here. Despite its arbitrariness, the JIF does
offer those who play by the rules of the game the pleasures of
narcissism (Roberts, 2009) and play (Graeber, 2015). But whether critical or supportive, what’s for sure is there could be no stepping away.

So what might the findings from this exploratory study signal?

An important set of concerns one takes from studying the JIF’s
effects is the likely consequences all this has for biomedical knowledge
production. Unfortunately as a recent literature review with our
colleagues on the effects of indicators showed, this is largely
impossible to answer in any general definitive sense (De Rijcke et al., 2015). Nonetheless, there are a few factors we might wish to flag.

In respect to research evaluation, whilst there are temptations in
using the JIF as a short-cut to making judgements about the quality of
work, there are several reasons to be concerned about increasing
reliance on this indicator alone. The fact is that by deferring to the
JIF, one is by extension deferring the complex process of judging and
ranking quality towards second order criteria (how well cited the
journal is in which the article appears), rather than the merits of the
work being judged as a standalone contribution to knowledge. This not
only reduces the worth of scientific work to a simple numbers game, but
also rely solely on the peer review process of journals to determine
scientific good taste. Whereas we might generally trust journals to do
this well enough most of the time, even the big brand journals have been
exposed for failing to detect simple errors or misconduct, as Philip
Moriarty’s recent keynote at the Accelerated Academy workshop in Prague
made evident. It is also commonly argued in history and sociology of
science that journal peer review also errs towards conservatism,
rejecting radical innovations and erring more towards incremental,
normal science-type contributions. Our observations of biomedical
researchers suggests charges of conservatism made against journal peer
review and reinforced by the JIF, should be taken as more than simply
sour grapes from those who have work rejected by high impact journals:
given the high stakes that come with publishing in high impact titles,
researchers are being steered towards exercising great caution in their
decisions about which projects to pursue. If there’s not chance an idea
will land them the high impact outputs they need, it’s a non-starter.

Depressingly this trend looks set to continue, as long as there is
hyper-specialisation and pressures to be productive, those evaluating
grant applications and hiring and promotion decisions may not feel
equipped in terms of skills or resources to read through submissions and
make their own judgements. Evaluation committees may be pressured into
omitting impact factors from their considerations, however their easy
availability online, forces of habit, and discretion entrusted to expert
committees makes this difficult to police. Even if such initiatives are
being made, scientists themselves will likely err on the side of
caution and continue to provide their scores on applications for funding
and promotion. The appeal of the JIF, or some equivalent, thus looks
likely to endure in a number of areas of medicine until this cycle is

The post is part of a series on the Accelerated Academy and is based on the author’s contribution presented at Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life (2
– 4 December 2015, Prague) which was supported by Strategy AV21 – The
Czech Academy of Sciences. Videocasts of the conference can be found on
the Sociological Review.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the
position of the LSE Impact blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Authors

Alex Rushforth is a researcher at CWTS, Leiden
University. He works in the areas of sociology of science, higher
education, and organizational sociology. Whilst training at the
Universities of Surrey and York in the United Kingdom, he has developed
interests in the evolving governance of public sciences, and in
particular its impact upon the research process itself.

Sarah de Rijcke is a sociologist of science and technology at CWTS, where she leads the Evaluation Practices in Context (EPIC) 
research group. Her current research programme in evaluation studies
examines interactions between research assessment and practices of
knowledge production. This programme is situated at the intersection of
Science and Technology Studies and the sociology and anthropology of

Impact of Social Sciences – Accounting for Impact? How the Impact Factor is shaping research and what this means for knowledge production.

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