Thursday, 18 May 2017

What is the impact of a research publication? | Evidence-Based Mental Health



What is the impact of a research publication?

  1. Seena Fazel,
  2. Achim Wolf

Author affiliations


increasing number of metrics are used to measure the impact of research
papers. Despite being the most commonly used, the 2-year impact factor
is limited by a lack of generalisability and comparability, in part due
to substantial variation within and between fields. Similar limitations
apply to metrics such as citations per paper. New approaches compare a
paper's citation count to others in the research area, while others
measure social and traditional media impact. However, none of these
measures take into account an individual author's contribution to the
paper or the number of authors, which we argue are key limitations. The
UK's 2014 Research Exercise Framework included a detailed bibliometric
analysis comparing 15 selected metrics to a ‘gold standard’ evaluation
of almost 150 000 papers by expert panels. We outline the main
correlations between the most highly regarded papers by the expert panel
in the Psychiatry, Clinical Psychology and Neurology unit and these
metrics, most of which were weak to moderate. The strongest correlation
was with the SCImago Journal Rank, a variant of the journal impact
factor, while the amount of Twitter activity showed no correlation. We
suggest that an aggregate measure combining journal metrics,
field-standardised citation data and alternative metrics, including
weighting or colour-coding of individual papers to account for author
contribution, could provide more clarity.

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1 readers on Mendeley

number of developments in the metrics field have occurred in recent
years, and, in this perspective article, we discuss whether they can
inform how judgements are made about the impact of research papers in
psychiatry and beyond.
The best-known approach has been
to rely on journal impact factors, the most common of which is a 2-year
impact factor, which calculates the average number of citations from
articles published in the past 2 years of a particular journal.1
Many arguments against journal impact factors have been outlined,
including the skewed nature of citations in most journals, the variation
between and within fields (with basic science attracting more
citations) and research designs (with systematic reviews being
relatively highly cited) and the citation lag time in some research
fields being longer than 2 years.2 A widely used alternative is the number of citations per paper, which can be drawn from research tools such as Scopus ( and Google Scholar (,
with the latter including a broader range of citable items such as
online reports and theses. The problem with citation counts is that they
vary considerably by research area, and there have been recent attempts
to account for this. One of these is the new iCite tool (
that normalises the number of citations of a particular paper to the
median annual number of citations that NIH-funded papers in the field
have received.3 Finally, alternative metrics have been increasingly used and include tools such as Altmetric (, which aims to capture the media and social media interest in a publication,4 and provides an overall article score and rankings compared with others in the same journal and/or time period.

A key problem with these approaches is that
they do not account for an individual author's contribution to a paper,
and therefore, high citation rates, h-indexes (for individuals) and
iCite scores can be achieved for researchers who have not made
significant contributions to a research area. The best example of this
is being included as a coauthor of a large treatment trial or genetic
consortium, where a researcher's contribution may be mostly in relation
to participant recruitment. The Psychiatric Genomics Consortium
workgroup for schizophrenia now average over 280 authors, although the
number of authors varies considerably and is occasionally placed in the
appendix. This highlights another problem with relying on measures of
citation in that they do not account for the total number of authors.
Accordingly, h-indexes should be routinely provided for papers where the
author is first, corresponding or last author (and second author in
Another limitation is that some of these
metrics are subject to measurement error, and some can be gamed. To take
an example of the latter, Altmetric scores can potentially be
artificially increased by robots that repost press releases. At the same
time, they may not pick up all media activity if the article is not
cited accurately or embedded in a hyperlink. In addition, they are
considerably higher in studies on exercise, diet and lifestyle, and in
areas that attract controversy.5 Although some research has shown some correlation between alternative metrics and citations scores,6
particularly early on after publication, they do not account for the
inherent problems outlined above about the extent of an individual's
contribution, normalisation by field and measurement error.
important natural experiment has been undertaken in the UK where a very
large sample of papers (k=148 755) was investigated against a gold
standard of peer review as part of the 2014 Research Exercise Framework
(or REF 2014). The REF was a national exercise undertaken to assess
research from 2008 to 2013 in higher education institutions in the UK,
which succeeded an earlier process (called the Research Assessment
Exercise in 2008). It determined the extent of central government basic
research funding for these institutions until the time of the next
evaluation (thought to be in 2021). Three factors were
considered—outputs (which made up 65% of the overall quality profile),
impact (20%) and environment (15%). A detailed bibliometric analysis of
the output data was published and provides a breakdown by unit of
Each eligible academic typically submitted four outputs for the REF.
Here, we will discuss the assessment block that most departments of
psychiatry and psychology will have entered, namely Unit 4 (Psychiatry,
Clinical Psychology and Neurology), which assessed 9086 journal
articles. The analysis took 15 different metrics for each paper and
analysed to what extent, they were correlated with the final view of the
REF panel (which was made up of an expert committee of 39 researchers).
The strongest bivariate correlations between these metrics and scoring
the highest score per paper are presented in figure 1.
Each paper was measured against a standard of originality, significance
and rigour and the best papers were scored a 4*, which represented
‘world leading’, whereas a 3* reflected ‘internationally excellent in
terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of
the highest standards of excellence’. Lower scores of 2*, 1* and
unclassified were also given.
Figure 1
bivariate correlations between paper metrics and the highest REF score.
*Source-Normalised Impact per Paper; †field-weighted citation impact;
‡Google Scholar citations.
strongest correlation was with the SCImago Journal Rank, which is a
metric based on the notion that not all citations have equivalent
weight, and categorises journals per field into four categories (from
low to high rank). It assumes that the subject field, quality and
reputation of the journal have a direct effect on the value of a
citation. This was followed by the absolute number of Scopus citations
and the percentile of highly cited publications. The Source-Normalised
Impact per Paper attempts to relativise the citation impact by weighting
citations based on the total number of citations in a subject field.
Thus, the impact of a single citation is given more value in
participants where citations are less likely.
there was no correlation between Twitter activity generated by an
article and a top REF score (of ‘4*’), and associations were weak for
full-article requests, downloads and reads on one platform (Mendeley,
Interestingly, for the overall REF which included 36 units, the 3
strongest markers of quality were the SCImago Journal Rank, the
Source-Normalised Impact per Paper and the percentile. Correlations
tended to be stronger in the sciences than in the arts and humanities.
this suggests is that the judgement of an expert panel that was
constituted to examine a paper's impact, perhaps the closest to a gold
standard that is possible, was most strongly correlated with the SCImago
Journal Rank, which itself is based mostly on the journal impact
factor. This is not surprising as many such journals have more stringent
peer and statistical review, insist on adhering to research guidelines,
benefit from professional editors, and articles in high-impact journals
are often cited to add legitimacy to a particular field of study, and
may be included in introductions. Further, the analysis of the REF 2014
suggests that new metrics appear unlikely to replace simpler ones such
as journal impact factor and number of citations per year.
where does this leave someone trying to assess the impact of a paper?
As there are difficulties with relying on one metric, we suggest that a
combination of metrics should be used. We recommend that those most
correlated with expert judgement take priority but can see a role for
Altmetrics, with the caveats noted above, as a measure of wider public
engagement, impact and interest. In the future, a combined score that
takes into account journal impact factor, number of citations, iCite,
Altmetric scores and a different colour coding or weighting for those
papers where authors have made a substantial contribution (eg, where an
author has been first/last/corresponding) would assist in providing some


SF and AW are funded by the Wellcome Trust.



  • Twitter Follow Seena Fazel @seenafazel
  • Competing interests None declared.
  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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What is the impact of a research publication? | Evidence-Based Mental Health

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