Impact factor: arbiter of excellence?

Publicação: 9 de March de 2021

Research and researchers on tropical diseases are undervalued by bibliographic metrics due to the little economic impact they represent

Research and researchers on tropical diseases are undervalued by bibliographic metrics due to the little economic impact they represent

The science behind the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered pressure for publications. But if, on the one hand, researchers are accustomed to trusting and valuing scientific research, on the other hand they show their disappointment by the journals that accept to publish precipitated studies and often without clear scientific evidence. In other words, peer review, considered as one of the pillars, if not the most important, of scientific communication, has never been so necessary, but it has also never been so relegated to such a secondary role. peers do not mean that the process is completely reliable and error-free, on the contrary: it is extremely specialized, time-consuming, non-transparent or overly critical work, in addition it is not free from bias and may not detect unethical behavior such as plagiarism or fabricated results.      Thus, criticisms and alternative mechanisms to replace it arise.

Science is there and serves to unveil the truth and to contribute knowledge and scientific journals cannot rely on reliable science.   As in other segments, in the scientific area, there are excellent national journals and others with unsatisfactory scientific standards.  Nowadays, every author considers the value of the impact factor (IF) to choose the journal that can give greater visibility to the work. However, essentially taking into account the impact factor when assessing the merit of the publication or academic performance, favors the creation of a vicious circle. Overvaluing the impact factor and the number of publications can generate an environment of tension and exacerbated competition between researchers, editors and professors.

Marco Aurelio Romano-Silva, professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Faculty of Medicine of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), explains that the impact factor is one of the items that the author should consider when choosing the journal, but other factors they are also important, such as the scope of the journal, payment of publication fees and the language in which it is published, as obviously English will give greater visibility. Editorial aspects are also important, for example, new journals from reputable editorial groups, such as Science, Nature, Lancet, JAMA, etc. may not have IF at the time of submission, but have good chances of achieving scientific prestige in a short time.

Despite being one of the most popular ways of measuring scientific work, the IF has gaps, which are commented on even by its creator Eugene Garfield, among other authors. One is that the journals with the highest IF tend to be those that publish review articles, as they are articles that receive more citations. Therefore, the journal that values unpublished works and that needs time for further analysis can be harmed in a metric like this, as it will have less impact within the two years evaluated after the publication of these articles. Professor Romano-Silva points out that this is a strategy used by journals that want to increase their impact factors. “However, good journals are able to balance original articles and reviews, without harming the first, sometimes publishing special editions with only reviews”, he adds. Still according to the professor, it is necessary to consider that good reviews also undergo serious scrutiny to assess their relevance. “Again, it will depend a lot on the seriousness of the journal and its editorial board”, he points out.

Even with prestige and benefits, it cannot be denied that the IF presents other problems that deserve attention. For example, in developing countries, such as Brazil, where the institutionalization of universities, research and scientific journals was slow to happen, journals have less international visibility and low IF. Professor Romano-Silva is categorical in stating that a good quality article, developed in Brazil, will have a good chance of being accepted in an international journal. For him, the lower visibility and low IF of national journals have more to do with the fact that several are published in Portuguese. He mentions that some journals, such as the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, are published in English and are on an upward curve of international visibility.

However, IF can be cruel to some areas of knowledge that are not in front of discoveries with high repercussions, such as the areas of fundamental biology, biotechnology and diseases with high added commercial value, such as obesity, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus, for example, which are of high bibliometric impact. While the discoveries of fundamental science are linked to the impact they generate on all knowledge, the economic value is linked to the prevalence of diseases, the economic power of the affected populations and the potential to generate commercial products. Rare diseases, diseases of neglected populations and tropical diseases are not in this scope because they have little economic and political impact. The IF of these diseases, with the exception of one of the most important tropical diseases, AIDS, is very low.

As a result, researchers and researchers in tropical diseases end up being undervalued by bibliographic metrics, not because of the lesser contribution or less importance of their investigations and publications, but because of the little economic impact they represent. The reality of Brazilian journals, in the last decades, shows that it is possible to include national publications in the world, alongside the foreign ones, which appear among the most respected and that publish the results of the most impactful investigations, but it is necessary to change the state of the science assessment so that the investigations of its scientists are not devalued by criteria destined to the enormous economic returns of the great scientific publishers of the non-tropical countries.

Although it is not unanimous, the IF is one of the quality indicators for journals indexed in the Web of Science. Professor Romano-Silva recognizes that it is an important item in the evaluation of researchers and their publications, but it should not be the only one to be considered. Indicators such as the number of citations, area of publication, target audience and others are also important.

Its growth is due to the requirement of the Qualis system of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) to Postgraduate programs to prioritize high IF journals for publication; the Editorial Program of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) that has financed journals for over thirty years; the consolidation of the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) library by requiring standardization and quality; and the Brazilian Association of Scientific Editors (ABEC), which has qualified Brazilian publishers since 1985.