Kumaran, Maha and Chau Ha. “Knowledge of Journal Impact Factors Among Nursing Faculty: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Journal of the Medical Library Association, 105, 2, 2017, 140-143. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.5195/jmla.2017.207
This recent article by Maha Kumaran and Chau Ha, Liaison Librarians at University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Polytechnic respectively, came to my attention for its focus on a topic I heard of frequently during my MLIS: journal impact factors.
Journal Impact Factors (JIFs) are the metric created by calculating the “number of times, on average, that a citable item in a given journal is indexed by Journal Citation Reports…and is the ratio between citations and recent citable items published” (Kumaran and Ha 140). It is one of many metrics attempting to create a ranking of all journals, despite each journals inherit difference to others. JIFs got a bad rap in my particular MLIS program, as we were pretty liberal-focused and tended to have bad associations with journal publishers and their massive inflation on prices, which is a bane to many librarians existence. JIFs were thus another way to trap academia and librarians to paying extraordinary access fees for overrated content.
Kumaran and Ha seem to approach the subject with a similar attitude, suggesting “JIF unfairly rates nursing journals as underperforming against journals in other disciplines,” while pressuring scholars to publish in high-JIF journals, even if they are not the most suitable for the specific work or not as easily accessed (Kumaran and Ha 140). The authors rightly note that in some institutions, the importance of JIFs is so high, tenure and other employment opportunities are directly linked to the number of publications in high-JIF journals (Ibid).
But what Kumaran and Ha uncover in their small study relates more to the value placed on JIFs. From the surveys they conducted with 44 nursing faculty and instructors on their knowledge of JIFs, the authors found that many respondents confused the association of a high JIF score with the authority or importance of a journal. For example, one respondent claimed higher JIF meant “the journal is respected by [the] scientific community and highly subscribed,” while another correlated the rank to “how it is valued by peer reviewers” (Kumaran and Ha 141). The finding of the study is thus that nursing faculty and instructors in Saskatchewan confused the JIF rank, a mathematically significant number created to aid librarians choose journal subscriptions, with subjective values placed on journals in the academic sphere.
This confusion presents a problem as it drives scholars to publish in a small group of journals, that may use their high JIF score to justify subscription inflation or as a basis for creating “big deals”. This problem can be felt both by the librarian and the patron. For the librarian, already tight budgets can be made tighter by publishers that have large subscription fees, often bumping out other items that can add value to the library collection. Library patrons might not understand the reasoning behind the journal subscription cuts that follow, creating a negative image of the library in the mind of the user.
Patrons would feel the impacts of this too, as they have less variety for their research. Kumaran and Ha note that journals with high JIF tend to have biases toward English-language North American articles, have a general and international scope, and tend to rank clinical and multidisciplinary research poorly (141). This creates a problem as limiting research or publication options to top JIF publications erases many opportunities to present information to more appropriate audiences, and compliment similar research. As well, it adds to the digital divide and thus makes it harder for non-English journals to achieve the authority and importance bestowed on English content.
Solutions to the problem of misplaced value on JIF scores require a change in the way things are done in academia – not an easy task. There needs to be a change in focus on the part of institutions away from valuing high-JIF publications for their scholars to publish in. Instead, focus should be given to the best journal for the article. JIF might be a factor in the discussion of where to publish, but it should not be the only factor. Instead, each journal should be considered for its own merits. While it is simple to have a single rank to refer to when judging the value of a journal in a collection or to an institution, reality shows that the unique values of each scholar and institution make the decision making process much more complicated.
Second, emphasis should be given to scholars who publish in open access (OA) journals. The merits of OA journals is something commonly heard in library literature (to not necessitate repeating in this review), and include helping to solve the problem of inflating journal subscription costs for library budgets. Kumaran and Ha did note that more respondents listed open access as a criteria for choosing a journal for publication than JIF (142).
Another solution, which seems to be more the focus of Kumaran and Ha’s article, is to better equip researchers and faculty members on the reasons the JIF exists and other ways to judge the authority of a scholarly journal for publication and/or research. Kumar and Ha found that 50% of respondents wanted further training in the JIF, 25% were interested in sessions to educate all faculty on the JIF, and 18% wanted to invite a librarian to speak in their classes about JIFs (142). Demand already sets the stage for this solution, and makes it easier to implement by librarians and other educators. Institutions with instructional librarians have the tools they need to begin to educate their populations on what JIFs are and what they truly mean.
For my practice, this article adds value as it influences how I would assist a patron looking for advice in choosing a publication to publish in. It’s important to first know if your institution places a value on journals with a high JIF, and then how to recommend journals based on their other merits: peer review process, open access availability, popularity in the field, and scope are all important to consider in the process. In addition, its useful to know that metrics like the JIF are not necessarily reflective of the value of a journal, especially in a field such as nursing where clinical and multidisciplinary research are important.