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How impact factors changed medical publishing—and science

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 15 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:561
  1. Hannah Brown, freelance journalist
  1. Cambridge
  1. Hannah{at}

    Hannah Brown investigates the use and abuse of journal rankings

    George Lundberg spent the early 1980s lamenting the loss of his journal's once great reputation. JAMA (the Journal of the AmericanMedical Association), which he had taken over in 1982, had been in decline since its peak of popularity in the 1960s. And a new set of rankings that pitted medical journals against each other on the basis of article citations now seemed to confirm that JAMA was a long way behind the best. To make his editorship successful, Dr Lundberg needed a recovery strategy.

    So, while other medical journals continued to dismiss as an irrelevance their citation rankings—labelled “impact factor” by the data crunching company that devised and compiled the system—Dr Lundberg seized the opportunity to make them work in JAMA's favour. Recognising that impact factors were derived from citations, Dr Lundberg reasoned that chasing high profile authors and institutions could help boost JAMA's rank and, therefore, its reputation. He instructed his editorial team to seek out studies that had the potential to become staple references in other papers and try to woo the authors into submitting to JAMA. “We were looking for prestige,” Dr Lundberg recalls.

    At the time the strategy was implemented, JAMA had a lot of ground to make up in the impact factor stakes. “When we started, JAMA and the BMJ were roughly similar at around four, the Lancet was higher, and NEJM [New England Journal of Medicine] and Annals [of Internal Medicine] were higher still,” Dr Lundberg explains. “But then JAMA started rising and it never stopped,” he says. Over several years, Dr Lundberg successfully raised the journal's impact factor to around 11, while those of the Annals of Internal Medicine and the BMJ rose only slightly in the …

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