In academic medicine we are all aware of the pressure to publish, and the metric by which many judge the quality of the papers that are published by a given author is the impact factor of the journal in which their papers appear. The impact factor of a journal is simply the average number of citations per article divided by the total number of “citable articles”. This method of assessing the quality of journals has become increasingly important over the last 20 years and has led to some changes in publication practices. For example, reviews tend to get cited more often than original research papers which is why review journals often have a relatively high impact factor (e.g Current Opinions in Nephrology and Hypertension in our field). Case reports, in contrast, rarely get cited and as a result, journals have moved away from publishing case reports and towards publishing reviews.
Ten years ago, Thomson Reuters (who generate the impact factors) realized that some journals were gaming the system to increase their citation count by publishing review articles and editorials that would preferentially cite papers published in their own journal. TR changed their algorithm to detect this kind of behavior and it is much less common as a result. Which brings me to this great website: Retraction Watch. This is a site which details on a daily basis papers which have been retracted from the literature for various reasons some sinister and some more innocent. Yesterday, they reported on the case of a series of articles retracted for citation manipulation which resulted in 3 journals losing their impact factors for this year. The articles were review papers which almost exclusively cited papers in another journal called “Cell Transplantation” and the authors were editorial board members of this journal. All in all, if these papers were excluded from the citation record, the impact factor of this journal would decrease from 6.2 to 4.1 for last year! This is a great post detailing the whole saga.
See here for a paper detailing the history of the impact factor.
Of course, we in the nephrology world would never get caught up in something like this…