Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7079.497 (Published 15 February 1997)
Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:497.1

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  1. Per O Seglen, professora
  1. a Institute for Studies in Research and Higher Education (NIFU) Hegdehaugsveien 31 N-0352 Oslo Norway
  • Accepted 9 January 1997

Introduction

Evaluating scientific quality is a notoriously difficult problem which has no standard solution. Ideally, published scientific results should be scrutinised by true experts in the field and given scores for quality and quantity according to established rules. In practice, however, what is called peer review is usually performed by committees with general competence rather than with the specialist's insight that is needed to assess primary research data. Committees tend, therefore, to resort to secondary criteria like crude publication counts, journal prestige, the reputation of authors and institutions, and estimated importance and relevance of the research field,1 making peer review as much of a lottery as of a rational process.2 3

On this background, it is hardly surprising that alternative methods for evaluating research are being sought, such as citation rates and journal impact factors, which seem to be quantitative and objective indicators directly related to published science. The citation data are obtained from a database produced by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in Philadelphia, which continuously records scientific citations as represented by the reference lists of articles from a large number of the world's scientific journals. The references are rearranged in the database to show how many times each publication has been cited within a certain period, and by whom, and the results are published as the Science Citation Index (SCI). On the basis of the Science Citation Index and authors' publication lists, the annual citation rate of papers by a scientific author or research group can thus be calculated. Similarly, the citation rate of a scientific journal—known as the journal impact factor—can be calculated as the mean citation rate of all the articles contained in the journal.4 Journal impact factors, which are published annually in SCI Journal Citation Reports, are widely regarded as …

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