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Monday, August 27, 2012

WSJ: Citation Study Rankings Beset by Growing Manipulation by Authors and Journals

WSJWall Street Journal:  Journals' Ranking System Roils Research:

Growing pressure on scientific journals to increase their influence in the research world is pushing them to ever further lengths to play the system that ranks scholarly publications.

In July, a publication called Scientific World Journal retracted two papers about regenerative medicine, saying they had excessively cited another journal, Cell Transplantation.

At issue was the "impact-factor ranking," one of the most influential numbers in scholarship. The impact factor was invented more than 50 years ago as a simple way to grade journals, on the basis of how frequently their articles got cited in the literature.

But concerns have arisen that some journals' impact factor is artificially inflated by excessive citations -- which appears to be why the editors of Scientific World Journal retracted previously published work. ...

Thomson Reuters, which publishes the impact-factor numbers, suspended the rankings for both the Scientific World Journal and Cell Transplantation for two years, a blow to the researchers who publish in those journals.

The broader worry is that the once-obscure yardstick is now a ubiquitous tool for assessing scientific merit -- a job it wasn't designed to do, and whose use is open to manipulation. ...

The impact factor, or IF, is routinely used by researchers in deciding where to publish and what to read. It guides promotions, tenure decisions and funding committees around the world, who assume someone publishing in a high-impact journal must be doing superior work.

Thomson Reuters calculates the IF by dividing the number of citations of research papers in a journal in one year by the total number of papers published in the same journal in the two previous years. So while the IF captures the citation rate of a journal as a whole, it says nothing about the quality or veracity of any individual paper.

Nonetheless, more and more countries today use the IF system to grade scientists. A few years ago, Qatar University began offering cash bonuses to its academics linked to the IF of the journal in which they publish.

Critics say that pushes academics to seek trendy ields of research and to try to publish in journals with the highest IF, instead of those that offer the best audience for their work. "It distorts the entire scientific enterprise," says Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal.

The IF is easily gamed, too. One in five academics in economics, sociology, psychology and business said they had been asked by editors to pad their papers with unnecessary citations to articles in the same journal, according to a study published in Science in February.

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