The Impact of Impact

It happened to us again last week: that dreaded letter from the high impact journal, “While we recognize that your work is of the highest quality, we feel that it is not of sufficiently broad interest for our general readership.” Who are these “general readers” and why aren’t they interested in our work?

This spawned a debate in the lab; how important is a journal’s impact factor, anyway? In this age of on-linejournals and internet publication searches, is a particular paper really more likely to be seen by others (ie. have more impact) by being published in one particular journal rather than another? Surely, an important result will be seen by anyone interested in that particular field, no matter what (accessible) journal it happens to be in. Papers in high impact journals are there, in theory anyway, because they are deemed to be of interest to a wider audience than workers in that particular field. This begs two questions:does the work do more to advance the field than if published in a more specialized venue, simply by the fact that it is in such a journal? Secondly, is the appeal to“general readership” a better criterion of high quality work than to readers knowledgeable in that field?

So why bother? Why do granting agencies and other evaluation committees put so much weight on papers in high impact journals? Not every paper in a high impact journal has high impact, just as some of the most important papers historically have not appeared in such journals. Should there be more emphasis on the number of citations of an individual paper? In some grant applications I have seen recently, the author has actually entered the number of citations of each paper in his bibliography. This is, again, much easier in the electronic age.

Perhaps one answer is that there are different types of impact. One is scientific impact that drives or advances a particular field. Another is (for lack of a better name) PR impact, relative to an important problem in human health, for example. A particular paper can have one or both of these types of impact, and they are both important contexts for our work. However, a high impact journal, or perhaps better termed a “high profile” journal, can put more weight on PR impact than strictly scientific impact.One recent example was the publication of the SARS coronavirus genome and subsequent modeling of the main protease structure. While there was nothing wrong with the science and these were very nice pieces of work, it is debatable whether they would have been published in Science were it not for the high profile of the disease and the rapidity of the result. It may not be exaggerating to suggest that getting your science only from high impact journals is like getting your news from the headlines in the Sun.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against publishing in high impact journals. Some of my best friends publish there, frequently (I’ve even had the pleasure once or twice, myself). Submit your work there when you can! Whether or not it should be, the fact is that it is a great boost to your personal profile and career (not to mention ego). At the same time, though, as a researcher (and a reviewer), remember that there is often little or no difference in the scientific quality, or even impact, of work published in more“specialist” journals. And those “general readers” don’t know what they’re missing!

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