Monday, June 5, 2006

Impact Factors: Scientific Publishers Face Uncomfortable Truths About Citation Policies

The Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports on the troubling revelation that impact factors, the calculations used to calculate the value of a scientific journal based on the frequency of citations to its content, may have been manipulated by some publishers by their pressuring of article authors to increase their citations of a particular publication. The article cites Richard Albert, the deputy editor of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, who indicates that "boilerplate" letters go out to many authors submitting papers to be considered for publication with wording that requests citations. There are also "legitimate" ways to build up impact factors for a publication, such as publishing reviews of other articles that offer little if any new research but provide a context for citations to count against impact factor totals.

The article deserves a careful read so as not to take some of its revelations out of context, but the pieces presented are part of a broader picture of established publishers trying to shore up their value in an era in which competitive outlets challenge their supremacy. Many of these same publishers rail against "link spam" that artificially inflates Web page rankings for content from many sources. How is the tilting of impact factors a similar phenomenon? We leave you to be the judge of that. But be it a close or distant relationship it's clear that the pressures on expensive print journals to sustain their revenue models are only increasing in the face of content technologies that make it easier than ever for legitimate peer communities to define the value of authoritative content more quickly and effectively than traditional print techniques.

In the process of moving from traditional review and ranking techniques with only the greatest of reluctance many scholarly publishers are missing enormous opportunities to redefine how scientific thought can be made available and useful in much more efficient, effective, reliable and valuable ways. It's not a matter of paid-versus-free, either: it's not clear that "open access" journals offer any significantly better review and impact measurement value, only a new way to subsidize existing review and ranking techniques. What's needed is a review of the review process itself and how it could be implemented more efficiently using today's user-driven publishing techniques.

Academic circles will move very, very slowly to change the peer review process through traditional journals: too much professional might depends on the process for them to do otherwise. But intelligent publishers should be working now to develop more efficient ways to evaluate the ongoing value of scholarly content that take far more advantage of the online technologies that have made advances in much of today's scientific thought possible. There will be far more premium value to be obtained from a superior method of bringing good scholarly thought to market more quickly and effectively than from defending a system that is in danger of hurting the cause of progress as much as it helps it.

To those publishers who feel that markets have no alternative but to play by this game, I'd urge them to recognize that in an increasingly global publishing marketplace alternative systems are going to evolve more quickly than one may imagine - especially when emerging economies can provide themselves with more advantage when they do so. The Western style of scholarly publishing is likely to be challenged in the years ahead by Asian markets that want to accelerate their progress in bringing products and services to market based on advances in scientific thought. It is a shift that is likely to resemble the acceleration of automobile production coming out of Asian markets past Western manufacturers that were unwilling to give up established manufacturing and marketing methods. The time to consider fundamental changes to scholarly publishing is now, not tomorrow. Tomorrow belongs to those who made that decision today.
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