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Journal impact factor versus altmetrics

Dr Zoran Dinev

Historical Background

In the 1970s, Eugene Garfield introduced a helpful tool for research libraries. The tool was developed to assist research libraries by judging the relative merits of the journals submitted. This tool was called the journal impact factor.

The journal impact factor was calculated yearly as the citations mean the number of articles published in any journal in the two preceding years. However, what started as a brilliant idea soon became questionable when the arithmetic mean became problematic for many as they realized that the citation distribution pattern was so skewed.

An analysis carried by Per Seglen in the year 1992 discovered that only 15 percent of the journal papers accounted for fifty percent of the total citations. Thus, this minority of the articles had above average citations denoted by the journal impact factor. Here, it is crucial to understand that 85 percent of the journal papers have fewer citations than the average. Thus, it shows that the journal impact factor is statistically hard to defend measuring a journal's performance. It deceives by distributing credit, which is earned by only a few published papers.

But before you in-depth assessing the problems associated with using the journal impact factor, let us first develop a good understanding of it.

Journal Impact Factor—What is it?

JIF is a factor or an indicator that shows the journal's importance in its field. Even though the impact factor's usage and reliability have been a debate for decades, it is still being used widely by clinicians and institutions.

The impact factor is not related to factors such as the peer-review process quality or the journal's content quality. In actuality, it is a measure that indicates the average citation number to articles that are published in journals. It can be used beyond journals such as for thesis, newspapers, books, seminar or conference proceedings, and documents published on the internet, and more.

    Simply stated, it is used to assess and measure:
  • The relative importance of a journal within its field
  • The frequency with which the average journal article is cited in a certain period

Thus, journals that publish more review articles get high impact factors and are believed to be more important than those with lower impact factors. It's vital to understand that the impact factor reflects the journal's and editor's ability to attract the best papers available.

JIF—How is it Calculated?

Now that we know what a journal impact factor is let's take a look at how it is calculated.

The impact factor for a journal is calculated once it completes a minimum of three years of publication. And do you know what that means? It means that the JIF cannot be used for new journals. Moreover, the journal that scores the highest JIF is the journal that published the most commonly cited articles in two years.

Note that IF is only applied to journals. It cannot be used for individual articles or scientists. The citation number an article receives can be better evaluated as a citation impact. In a particular year, a journal's impact factor is the average citation number received per article published in that journal in two preceding years. Every year journals with impact factors are published in JCR (Journal Citation Reports).

Here's a look at the calculation:

Let's say a journal has an impact factor of three in 2008. Its published papers in 2006 and 2007 receive three citations, each on average in 2008. Then the 2008 impact factor will be published in 2009. They can't be calculated until all the 2008 publications are processed by the indexing agency. The impact factor for the biomedical journal range from five percent to eight percent. The impact factor of any journal is deduced by the formula as given below:

2012 impact factor =A/B

Where:

A represents the number of times published articles in the years 2010 and 2011 were cited by the journals indexed during the year 2012

B represents the total number of items citable such as reviews and articles published by the journal in 2010 and 2011.

One thing that should be considered is that journals' impact factors can't be compared across categories or disciplines. However, they can be compared productively with other journals in the same subject category to determine a good impact factor for a journal in that particular category.

To determine the best or a good impact factor, you will have to go to the JCR site and browse through the category of choice. The journal list is ranked according to the impact factor, so it is easy to answer a good impact factor. For further analysis, you can also select the journals that you wish to compare and refine selection in various ways by selecting different options available.

Altmetric—what is it?

Most researchers don't favor JIF because they believe that if a numerical metric is being used to decide and judge the quality of science, it should measure quality accurately. However, what they complain about is that the journal impact factor doesn't measure quality with accuracy. Thus the researchers from the Altmetric community argue that the journal impact factor should be replaced with better alternative metrics. This is where Altmetrics come into the picture.

Altmetric can be best described as metrics that are complementary to citation-based metrics. These include but are limited to:

  • Peer reviews on faculty of 1000
  • Wikipedia citations
  • Public Policy document citations 
  • Discussions on research blogs
  • Reference manager bookmarks like Mendeley
  • Mainstream media coverage

These alternative metrics can tell a lot about how journal articles and scholarly outputs, such as datasets, are used and discussed worldwide. This is one of the top reasons why alternative metrics are incorporated into the websites of researchers, journal websites, institutional repositories, and more.

How Altmetrics Display the Attention and Influence of Research?

Often classified as a single class of indicators, altmetrics are quite diverse. Here's how:

Attention record

This metric indicates how many people came across a scholarly output and how they engaged with it. Examples include mentions in the blogs, social media, news, article page views, downloads, and GitHub repository watchers.

A way for measuring dissemination

It helps you develop a better understanding of where and why a research paper is being discussed and shared in the public sphere and among scholars.

An indicator of impact and influence

Some data collected using altmetrics indicates that research is changing the field of study or has any other type of tangle effect on the larger society. These different dimensions tell a lot about the nuanced story of research's value than citation counts alone can.

Nonetheless, it is essential to keep in mind that these metrics are only indicators that point towards interesting changes in different attention types. Thus, they should not be considered as evidence of such. But if you genuinely need to learn about the impact of evidence, then you will need to look at the qualitative data in-depth such as: who is talking about the research, where in the world the research is cited, read, reused, etc.

Pros of using Altmetric

Alternative metrics offer a variety of benefits over journal impact factors. These are but are not limited to:

Faster to Collect

As they are sourced from the web and not from books or journals, it is faster to accumulate than citation-based metrics. Thus, with altmetrics it is possible to collect and monitor the work online as soon as it gets published.

Has the Flexibility to Capture More Diverse Impacts

 With altmetrics you can understand the diverse impact that research can have, such as it can be controversial, a titillating piece of the discussion, mainstay of the field, or a great contribution to the field. By developing an understanding of the research's diverse impact, you can better understand and recognize its usage scenario.

Not Limited to Books and Journal Articles

Altmetrics can be applied to more than books and articles. This is because researchers are now sharing their data, presentations, software, and other scholarly outputs on the web. It further helps track their use online easily.

 Altmetrics—How to use Them?

If you thought altmetrics were only introduced to replace traditional citation-based journal assessment metrics, then you might want to think again. It is because altmetrics go above and beyond in terms of usage. Today altmetrics are being used widely by:

  • People as evidence of influence for tenure and promotion, and application of grants
  • Institutions for benchmarking the overall performance of a university
  • Libraries for better collection management decision, and the understanding of digital library content and the use of IR
  • Publishers for benchmarking the performance journal in a particular subject area

Some vital thing to keep in mind when alternate metrics are:

Context is Crucial

When presenting the data using altmetrics make sure to give the readers a strong point of reference. For example, 'This article received 90 Mendeley bookmarks'. It is not an informative sentence for the reader because it lacks a reference point. A better way to pass down the information is 'This article received 90 Mendeley bookmarks, thereby putting it in the 99th percentile compared to articles within the same category and a similar time frame.

Qualitative Data is more Enlightening


If you're presenting metrics, make sure to present qualitative data along with it. It will create a compelling case with a more significant impact of your research on your readers. For example, don't just write 'This program was mentioned in 33 news platforms'. Instead, make information more enlightening such as 'This program was mentioned in 33 news platforms globally including The Guardian and the New York Times. 

Journal Impact Factor vs. Alternative Metrics —Which is Better?

Although these metrics were introduced by the altmetrics community to replace citation-based factor, after learning about altmetrics, we can see that even though altmetrics have received wide acceptability from the research community, journal impact factor continues to remain the most popular and recognized proxy when it comes to determining the impact in many disciplines.

Put simply, even today, altmetrics are not replaceable with JIF. However, they do serve as a great supplement to citations. Using journal impact factors, along with altmetrics, you can create a more detailed picture of the research influence. Furthermore, you can't use altmetrics as a replacement for informed peer review and understand the full impact of research.

Besides this, in comparison to the journal impact factor, alternative metrics are relatively new. Therefore, researchers need to learn more about altmetrics and its use. At present, we still don't have complete information about altmetrics; more research thus is required. However, once we have complete information about alternative metrics and interpret them more carefully, we can come to a better conclusion and decide whether it can replace the journal impact factor or not.

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A collection of blog posts that will help you with preparing your paper for publication. From choosing your journal to writing yoru cover letter, and everything in between.