Buyer Beware: Are Some Impact Factors Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

One of the most important distinctions of an academic journal is the rate at which its articles are cited and shared by other academics in a particular year. In academia, this is called the “impact factor.” The impact factor of a journal is a measure reflecting the yearly average number of citations to recent articles published in that journal. The higher a journal’s impact factor, the better the chance that the articles will be circulated and the journal read.

It is best used as a broad measure of a journal’s validity, not necessarily used on an article-by-article basis. Newer journals can only receive a valid impact factor after three years of publication. It is important to note that citation analysis is affected by field-dependent factors, which make comparisons across disciplines or between fields of research hard to validate.

But even with its limitations, impact factors remain the standard means the scientific publishing community currently has for comparing and highlighting the selective importance of certain research articles.

Unfortunately, along with the influx of predatory publications, the scientific community has seen the recent rise of fake impact factor companies, which attempt to manipulate impact factor numbers for selected publications. While falsifying a journal’s data may produce short-term results, using phony impact factors will eventually lead to permanent damage of a journal’s, publisher’s, and sometimes even an unwitting writer’s, reputation throughout the field.

As the world of Open Access continues to evolve and expand, falsified impact factor companies will continue to spring up and manipulate metrics to turn a profit. If enough of these companies form and operate undetected, it could significantly slow the successful progress of the Open Access movement and undermine the validity and purpose of impact factors in the first place. A key component of improving Open Access articles in the future is maintaining quality control. This is especially important in the scientific community, where new research can have a major impact on the global community.

Jeffrey Beall – a librarian and professor at the University of Colorado, Denver – is a leader in the academic watchdog community that works to monitor and identify these sham impact factor companies. He also runs and regularly updates a blog, Scholarly Open Access, which identifies more than a thousand publishers that he considers predatory and welcomes reactions from readers of the blog.

Although Open Access has come a long way since the movement began, predatory companies and an influx of false data provide serious obstacles to its progression. As long as sham impact factor companies attempt to skew the metrics of academic journals to turn a profit, academic watchdogs like Beall, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) are vital to keeping these corrupt influences in check. The more these unethical companies that can be identified and dismantled, the higher our quality of shared research and scientific discourse can be.