If I had more time, this post would be shorter. But it explains how we have an opportunity to get UK research councils to help break the corrosive dependence of researchers on impact factors. Please at least skim all the way to the bottom to see how easy it is for you to participate.
15-3-2013: Please see update at the foot of this post for an important announcement from RCUK.
I had no idea when I clicked ‘publish’ last August that my ‘Sick of Impact Factors’ post would unleash such a huge response. Evidently I had pulled on a chain that everyone feels bound by. The post attracted over 180 comments and tens of thousands of page views. It is still getting over 2000 hits a month.
As I wrote in that post (and elsewhere), the abuse of journal impact factors (IFs) in the assessment of scientists applying for jobs, promotion or funding is a deep-seated and largely self-inflicted problem. It is retarding the uptake of open access, because the addictive lure of IFs inhibits some authors from choosing new OA journals and allows ‘high-impact’ journals to lever higher article processing charges (APC) from those paying for gold OA.
The response to the blogpost has been very gratifying but will ultimately be worthless if it cannot be harnessed to make the necessary shift away from a culture of dependency on impact factors. It seems to have influenced the thinking of at least one journal. Nature Materials cited my post in an editorial last month that warned its readers of the dangers of using IFs as a guide to the performance of individual researchers. I was pleased also to see that the journal’s Instructions to Authors now links to this editorial.
That’s a start and I very much hope other journals will follow this fine example. But for the shift to take hold we also need influential players such as universities and funding agencies to publicly disavow the use of impact factors in the assessment of individuals.
We should not underestimate how long this might take. In guidelines for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is currently gathering information on outputs to assess the quality of UK research, HEFCE has stated clearly that journal impact factors will not be used by its judging panels. However, there remains widespread distrust in the research community that this will actually happen. An informal survey of departmental practices around the country by Dr Jenny Rohn found that many are looking at IFs when deciding which of their researchers’ publications to submit to the REF. Clearly, old habits die hard.
But now there is a new opportunity to hammer one more nail into the impact factor coffin. On 6th March RCUK, the body that oversees the UK research councils, issued updated guidance on its new open access policy, which is due to take effect on 1st April this year. This policy has been much debated but I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again today. Instead I want to focus on a key point relating to impact factors.
While their OA policy indicates RCUK’s preference for immediate access funded by APC payments (gold OA), RCUK-funded authors can alternatively meet their obligations by depositing their final peer-reviewed manuscript in an institutional repository (green OA). The guidelines (PDF) seek to clarify the flexibility that is available to researchers in deciding which route to follow, which may well affect the particular journals that they should choose and that inevitably raises the question of impact factors.
The guidelines make it abundantly clear that the “choice of route to Open Access remains with the author and their research organisation” but how that plays out in terms of journal choices on the ground remains tricky. Section 3.5(ii) discusses the payment of APCs from the block grants that RCUK will provide to institutions. RCUK hasn’t specified upper or lower limits on APCs that are allowable although they are keen to drive down costs*:
“institutions should work with their authors to ensure that a proper market in APCs develops, with price becoming one of the factors that is taken into consideration when deciding where to publish.”
In pursuance of this admirable goal the document notes that:
“HEFCE’s policy on the REF, which puts no weight on the impact value of journals in which papers are published, should be helpful in this respect, in that it facilitates greater choice.”
However, RCUK fails to follow HEFCE’s lead with a statement of its own.
Later in the document (section 3.6(iii)) the issue of journal choice raised again (with my emphases in bold):
“Where an author’s preference is ‘pay-to-publish’ and their first choice of journal offers this option, but there are insufficient funds to pay for the APC, in order to meet the spirit of the RCUK policy, the Councils prefer the author to seek an alternative journal with an affordable ‘pay-to-publish’ option or with an option with embargo periods of six or twelve months.”
Admirable flexibility but the guidance again fails to offer researchers explicit reassurance on the question of impact factors, which cannot at present be disentangled from the decision about which journal to select.
The remedy for this is straight-forward: the guidelines should be amended to include an explicit and public reassurance to researchers that RCUK and their associated funding councils will put in place instructions for reviewers and panel members to disregard impact factors in assessing all funding applications. Given RCUK’s evident approval of HEFCE’s IF-blind policy, I expect them to be ready to embrace an opportunity to foster a real improvement in our culture of assessment. The Wellcome Trust already has a statement to this effect built in to its open access policy, affirming the principle that:
“it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.”
Every little helps, so perhaps you can help me to persuade RCUK to adopt a similar statement? Together we can provide a friendly shove in the right direction.
The consultation on the guidelines is open until next Wednesday, 20th March. I will be writing to RCUK’s Alexandra Saxon on that date to request that an explicit disavowal of the use of impact factors in the assessment of researchers is included in the revised guidelines (providing a link to this post to explain the reasoning). Please feel free to write in the same vein or, if it is easier, leave a comment here stating that you are happy to be included as a signatory on my email. Or send me an email (s dot curry at imperial dot ac dot uk). Please give your name, title and affiliation. I imagine RCUK will be more attendant to the views of UK-based researchers but there would be no harm in giving a sense of the global reach of the problem of impact factors.
Update (15-3-2013; 11:51): I am grateful to Alexandra Saxon, RCUK Head of Communications, who has this morning added a comment confirming that “RCUK will add a statement similar to the Wellcome Trust’s to the next revision of the guidance, due to be published towards the end of the month.”
I had suspected that RCUK would be sympathetic to our request but it is nevertheless great news to hear of this commitment. Readers should still fee free to indicate their support; I have told Alexandra that I will still write next Wednesday to communicate our collective desire to see abandonment of the use of IFs in assessing applications. My thanks to all who have offered support so far, in comments and emails.
*I realise the RCUK’s preference for gold over green OA entails higher transitional costs in the short term but would like to set that debate aside just for today.