« Images Repository Library for the Sciences? | Main | STS/ASEE ELD/SLA Sci-Tech Continuing Education Survey 2005 »

ISI's Impact Factor: Wagging the Dog?

.: Bob Michaelson posted a note to PAMNET-L regarding a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on ISI's "impact factors." The article is called The Number That's Devouring Science: The impact factor, once a simple way to rank scientific journals, has become an unyielding yardstick for hiring, tenure, and grants, and is written by Richard Monasterky. Bob also points to a discussion of the article on Crooked Timber. Both are worth reading. Excerpt from Monasterky's article:

In the beginning, during the late 1950s, it was just an innocent idea in Eugene Garfield's head. A Philadelphia researcher who described himself as a "documentation consultant," Mr. Garfield spent his free time thinking about scientific literature and how to mine information from it.

He eventually dreamed up something he called an "impact factor," essentially a grading system for journals, that could help him pick out the most important publications from the ranks of lesser titles. To identify which journals mattered most to scientists, he proposed tallying up the number of citations an average article in each journal received.

This accounting method sounds harmless enough. Outside academe, few people have even heard of it. Mr. Garfield, though, now compares his brainchild to nuclear energy: a force that can help society but can unleash mayhem when it is misused.

Indeed, impact factors have assumed so much power, especially in the past five years, that they are starting to control the scientific enterprise. In Europe, Asia, and, increasingly, the United States, Mr. Garfield's tool can play a crucial role in hiring, tenure decisions, and the awarding of grants.

"The impact factor may be a pox upon the land because of the abuse of that number," says Robert H. Austin, a professor of physics at Princeton University.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)