BMC’s Impact Factors: Elsevier’s Take and Reactions to It

A growing body of research suggests that open access may increase the impact of scholarly literature (see Steve Hitchcock’s "Effect of Open Access and Downloads ("Hits") on Citation Impact: A Bibliography of Studies"). Consequently, "impact factors" play an important part in the ongoing dialog about the desirability of the open access model.

On June 23, 2005, BioMed Central issued a press release entitled "Open Access Journals Get Impressive Impact Factors" that discussed the impact factors for their journals. You can consult the press release for the details, but the essence of it was expressed in this quote from Matthew Cockerill, Director of Operations at BioMed Central:

These latest impact factors show that BioMed Central’s Open Access journals have joined the mainstream of science publishing, and can compete with traditional journals on their own terms. The impact factors also demonstrate one of the key benefits that Open Access offers authors: high visibility and, as a result, a high rate of citation.

On July 8, 2005, Tony McSean, Director of Library Relations for Elsevier, sent an e-mail message to SPARC-OAForum@arl.org "(OA and Impressive Impact Factors—Non Propter Hoc") that presented Elsevier’s analysis of the BMC data, putting it "into context with those of the major subscription-based publishers." Again, I would encourage you to read this analysis. The gist of the argument is as follows:

This comparison with four major STM publishers demonstrates that BMC’s overall IF results are unremarkable, and that they certainly do not provide evidence to support the common assertion that the open access publishing model increases impact factor scores.

My reaction was as follows.

These interesting observations do not appear to account for one difference between BMC journals and the journals of other publishers: their age. Well-established, older journals are more likely to have attained the credibility required for high IFs than newer ones (if they ever will attain such credibility).

Moreover, there is another difference: BMC journals are primarily e-journals, not print journals with derivative electronic counterparts. Although true e-journals have gained significant ground, I suspect that they still start out with a steeper hill to climb credibility-wise than traditional print journals.

Third, since it involves paying a fee, the author-pays model requires a higher motivation on the part of the author to publish in such journals, likely leading to a smaller pool of potential authors. To obtain high journal IFs, these had better be good authors. And, for good authors to publish in such journals, they must hold them in high regard because they have other alternatives.

So, if this analysis is correct, for BMC journals to have attained "unremarkable" IFs is a notable accomplishment because they have attained parity with conventional journals that have some significant advantages.

Earlier in the day, Dr. David Goodman, Associate Professor of the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, commented (unbeknownst to me since I read the list in digest form):

1/ I doubt anyone is contending that at this point any of the
BMC titles are better than the best titles from other publishers. The point is that they are at least as good as the average, and the best of them well above average. For a new publisher, that is a major accomplishment—and one that initially seemed rather doubtful. . . .

2/ Normally, publishing in a relative obscure and newly founded journal would come at some disadvantage to the author, regardless of how the journal was financed. . . .

3/ You can’t judge OA advantage from IF alone. IF refers to journals, OA advantage refers to individual articles. The most convincing studies on OA advantage are those with paired comparisons of articles, as Stevan Harnad has explained in detail.

4/ Most of the BMC titles, the ones beginning with the BMC journal of…, are OA completely. For the ones with Toll Access reviews etc., there is obviously much less availability of those portions than the OA primary research, so I doubt the usual review journal effect applies to the same extent as usual.

On July 9, 2005, Matt Cockerill sent a rebuttal to the SPARC-OAForum that said in part:

Firstly, the statistics you give are based on the set of journals that have ISI impact factors (in fact, they cover only journals which had 2003 Impact Factors). . . . Many of BioMed Central’s best journals are not yet tracked by ISI.

Secondly, comparing the percentage of Impact Factors going up or down does not seem a particularly meaningful metric. What is important, surely, is the actual value of the Impact Factor (relative to others in the field). In that regard, BioMed Central titles have done extremely well, and several are close to the top of their disciplines. . . .

Thirdly, you raise the point that review articles can boost a journal’s Impact Factor, and that many journals publish review articles specifically with the intention of improving their Impact Factor. This is certainly true, but of BioMed Central’s 130+ journals, all but six are online research journals, and publish virtually no review articles whatsoever. . . .

No reply yet from Elsevier, but, whether there is or not, I’m sure that we have not heard the last of the "impact factor" argument.

Stevan Harnad has made it clear that what he calls the "journal-affordability problem" is not the focus of open access (this is perhaps best expressed in Harnad et al.’s "The Access/Impact Problem and the Green and Gold Roads to Open Access"). The real issue is the "research article access/impact problem":

Merely to do the research and then put your findings in a desk drawer is no better than not doing the research at all. Researchers must submit their research to peer review and then "publish or perish," so others can use and apply their findings. But getting findings peer-reviewed and published is not enough either. Other researchers must find the findings useful, as proved by their actually using and citing them. And to be able to use and cite them, they must first be able to access them. That is the research article access/impact problem.

To see that the journal-affordability problem and the article access/impact problem are not the same one need only note that even if all 24,000 peer-reviewed research journals were sold to universities at cost (i.e., with not a penny of profit) it would still be true that almost no university has anywhere near enough money to afford all or even most of the 24,000 journals, even at minimal access-tolls (http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/arlbin/arl.cgi?task=setuprank). Hence, it would remain true even then that not all would-be users could access all of the yearly 2.5 million articles, and hence that that potential research impact would continue to be lost.

So although the two problems are connected (lower journal prices would indeed generate somewhat more access), solving the journal-affordability problem does not solve the research access/impact problem.

Of course, there are different views of open access, but, for the moment, let’s say that this view is the prevailing one and that this is the most compelling argument to win the hearts and minds of scholars for open access. Open access will rise or fall based on its demonstrated ability to significantly boost impact factors, and the battle to prove or disprove this effect will be fierce indeed.

One thought on “BMC’s Impact Factors: Elsevier’s Take and Reactions to It”

  1. Peter Suber in his Open Access News posting about this piece said:

    I’d only add that it’s important to distinguish the citation impact of an individual article from a journal impact factor. The BMC-Elsevier debate is about the latter. But OA is more likely to rise and fall according to the former. Authors control the rate at which we move toward OA and they care more about the impact of their own work than the average impact of the authors who publish in the same journal.

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