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2017 Journal Impact Factors Feature Citation Distributions

Yesterday, Clarivate Analytics released their 2018 Journal Citation Reports (JCR) — an annual compendium of journal-level citation metrics. While the JCR publishes an entire panel of performance scores, most editors, publishers, and authors will be focused on Journal Impact Factor (JIF) scores for 2017.

There are two notable changes in this year’s JCR. First, the 2018 JCR will now include citations from Clarivate’s Book Citation Index. This addition will inflate JIF scores from last year by about 1%, on average, for science and engineering titles and 2% for journals in the social sciences and humanities. In 2016, Clarivate added — without public announcement — citations from their Emerging Sources Citation Index, which had an overall effect of inflating JIFs by 5% and 13%, respectively. Unbeknownst, many publishers breathlessly extolled their 2015 journal scores as performance improvements and not simple changes in JCR’s citation dataset.

Secondly, and more importantly, the JCR will now publish journal citation distributions. This change appears to be a response to the widely influential 2016 proposal authored by a bibliometrician along with several high-profile editors and publishers. The Scholarly Kitchen, featured three critiques to their proposal (here, here, and here).

Figure 1. Journal Citation Report example journal distribution. Source: Clarivate press release, 26 June 2018.

Clarivate’s journal distributions addresses, and improves upon, several shortcomings of the original proposal by:

  1. Standardizing the histograms. This will prevent publishers from modifying their axes to favorably present their journals and will help facilitate cross-journal comparisons.
  2. Standardizing the data included in each histogram. This will prevent editors and publishers from cherry-picking the papers they want profiled.
  3. Providing descriptive statistics (median paper performance) based on article type (Article vs. Review), as was proposed in the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) recommendation #14.
  4. Including a disclosure of unlinked citations, i.e., citations that count toward a journal’s score but don’t include sufficient information to unambiguously identify a specific article.

It is not clear that Clarivate wants these histograms be reused, however. There is no way to download or export them as a simple image file. More importantly, each histogram lacks a journal title, source attribution, and permitted use statement. As a consequence, legitimate publishers may be uneasy about putting these distributions on their websites while illegitimate publishers may exploit these shortcomings by misappropriating citation distributions of real journals for their own. Given that the JCR is released just once per year, it is unlikely that periodic updates to these histograms will get noticed. The proverbial horse has left the stable.

In sum, the 2018 edition of the JCR shows an earnest attempt to address constructively the demands of the research community. However, poor implementation of their journal performance dashboard may prevent these improvements from being used and may actively encourage misuse and abuse by predatory publishers.

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