and the runner up is…

This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Thomson-Reuters just released its 2009 Journal Citation Report–essentially a comprehensive ranking of scientific journals by their impact factor (IF). The odd part, as reported by Bob Grant in The Scientist, is that the journal with the second-highest IF is Acta Crystallographica – Section A–ahead of heavyweights like the New England Journal of Medicine. For perspective, the same journal had an IF of 2.051 in 2008. The reason for the jump?

A single article published in a 2008 issue of the journal seems to be responsible for the meteoric rise in the Acta Crystallographica – Section A‘s impact factor. “A short history of SHELX,” by University of Göttingen crystallographer George Sheldrick, which reviewed the development of the computer system SHELX, has been cited more than 6,600 times, according to ISI. This paper includes a sentence that essentially instructs readers to cite the paper they’re reading — “This paper could serve as a general literature citation when one or more of the open-source SHELX programs (and the Bruker AXS version SHELXTL) are employed in the course of a crystal-structure determination.” (Note: This may be a good way to boost your citations.)

Setting aside the good career advice (and yes, I’ve made a mental note to include the phrase “this paper could serve as a general literature citation…” in my next paper), it’s perplexing that Thomson-Reuters didn’t downweight Acta Crystallographica‘s IF considerably given the obvious outlier. There’s no question they would have noticed that the second-ranked journal was only there in virtue of one article, so I’m curious what the thought process was. Perhaps the deliberation went something like this:

Thomson-Reuters statistician A: We need to take it out! We can’t have a journal with an impact factor of 2 last year beat out the NEJM!

Thomson-Reuters statistician B: But if we take it out, it’ll look like we tampered with the IF!

TRS-A: But we already tamper with the IF! No one knows how we come up with these numbers! Sometimes we can’t even replicate our own results ourselves! And anyway, it’s really not a big deal if we just leave the article in; scientists know better than to think Acta Crystallographica is the second most influential science journal on the planet. They’ll figure it out.

TRS-B: But that’s like asking them to just disregard our numbers! If you’re supposed to ignore the impact factor in cases where it contradicts your perception of journal quality, what’s the point of having an impact factor at all?

TRS-A: Beats me.

So okay, I’m sure it didn’t go down quite like that. But it’s still pretty weird.
And now, having bitched about how arbitrary the IF is, I’m going to go off and spend the next 15 minutes perusing the psychology and neuroscience journal rankings…

3 thoughts on “and the runner up is…”

  1. I once heard that a good piece of advice is to take an obvious but still citation-worthy conclusion from your article and make it the title, so that lazy people won’t have to bother even looking up the abstract (never mind reading the article). The example given was Baumeister and Leary’s paper “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation” (currently over 3000 citations per Google Scholar), which now gets cited pretty much reflexively every time anybody says that humans like having relationships with other humans. (Note: I’m not saying that the whole piece is obvious, just the conclusion that people cite it for.)

  2. “This paper could serve as a general literature citation” – I can’t believe that actually worked, but it’s a good trick.

    The thing about making life easy for lazy readers is very good advice. At least in my experience people rarely actually read review papers, but loads of people cite them because they need to cite something to back up a statement they’ve made in the Intro or the Discussion.

    Making the title as punchy as possible is good, after that the abstract needs to be good (make it seem as though you cover everything, lots of buzzwords), and then in the main text the subheadings are important – have lots of punchy subheadings to make it seem as though it’s a comprehensive review for people who skim-read it…

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