Research Impact

What is an Impact Factor?

Research Impact is the demonstrable contribution that research makes in academia and society. The impact of your research can be determined a number of ways.

Why measure and track research impact? 

  • Strengthen your case when you apply for promotion or tenure
  • Quantify return on research investment for grant renewals and progress reports 
  • Strength future funding requests by showing the value of completed work
  • Identify who is using your work and confirm that it is appropriately credited 
  • Identify collaborators within or outside of your subject area.

The Journal Impact Factor is typically determined by comparing two components: the number of citations a journal receives over the previous two years (A), and the number of articles that journal published over the same two years (B). A/B equals the Impact Factor of the journal. 

Why So Many Ways to Measure Impact?

There is no one way to measure research impact. As methods of research, scholarship, and scholarly communication expand, new metrics are developed in an attempt to improve upon existing methods and to measure new ways of publication. Dissatisfaction with existing metrics has also inspired the creation of new methods. As different disciplines place more importance on a particular metric and disregard another, know that research measurement can be fallible, deserves investigation, and having more methods of measurement is a good thing. XKCD comic below. 

Comic titled "How Standards Proliferate" with three boxes. First box: Situation: There are 14 competing standards. Second Box: Person says "14?! Ridiculous! We need to develop one universal standard that covers everyone's use cases." Another Person "Yeah!" Box Three: Soon. Situation: There are 15 competing standards.

Controversy Surrounding Research Impact

While research impacts are an academia standard, unbiased use of data is imperative. When exploring research impacts, especially impact factors, please keep the following in mind: 

Impact Factors Within a Discipline: 

  • Impact Factor analysis is limited to the scope of the tool you are using. For example, Journal Citation Reports is run through the database Web of Science which indexes around 8,000 journals. If the journal you want to know more about is not in Journal Citation Reports, the tool will not give the journal an impact factor. 
  • A high impact factor does not convey quality or validity. For example, retracted articles often invite high numbers of citations while experts dissect the reason for the retraction and the surrounding issues. 
  • Journals that publish a high number of literature reviews often have high impact factors. While these review articles are not adding new knowledge to the field, they are cited often.
  • New journals are often underrepresented. 
  • Some journal editors may encourage authors to cite their works previously published in the journal - "gaming" the system.

Impact Factors Across Disciplines: 

  • Using a two-year window to measure impact factors can skew disciplines that use much older literature and provide a challenge to acquiring accurate measurements. The five-year window of measurement is often used to intercept this within a specific discipline but makes cross-discipline measurements impossible. 
  • A discipline where many authors collaborative on a single paper will automatically generate a higher impact factor than in disciplines where authors publish alone or with one or two co-authors. 
  • Disciplines have different standards on how many citations are typically included in empirical research articles. 
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