Impact! More about the research and less about the ’factor’

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Love them or hate them, the annual release of the Thomson Reuters Impact Factors (IF) in the Journal Citations Report (JCR) never fails to generate a flurry of interest in researchers and publishers alike. Many researchers closely monitor any changes in IF before deciding where to submit their papers. Some research institutions even have policies in place dictating the IF level a journal has to be for affiliated researchers to submit.

The 2012 IF for BMC Medicine has increased to 6.68, and we are now ranked seventh out of 151 journals in the 2012 JCR medicine, general and internal category. While we’re very pleased about this positive trend, it’s also worth focusing on the importance of the individual articles in the journal. As an open access general medical journal, BMC Medicine is in the fortunate position of publishing important peer-reviewed research findings that focus on a topic of relevance to everyone – health and medicine.

While the IF is a useful guide of journal level citations, it doesn’t account for the impact individual articles may have in the very long-term (i.e. more than 5 years after publication), and it certainly doesn’t account for the interest non-clinical researchers (including patient advocacy groups and clinicians who don’t regularly publish in journals) may have in the findings of specific research. A quick look at the access rates of our articles illustrates how research we published as far back as 2004 appear in our top 10 most highly accessed articles list. For example, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2004, showed the efficacy of acetylcysteine for the prevention of contrast-induced nephropathy on patients undergoing angiography was unclear and so highlighted the need for a large, multi-center trial. This article has been cited consistently from 2006 until 2012 and currently ranks as the 3rd most accessed article in the journal (including 97 accesses in the last 30 days).

The issue of not accounting for the impact of individual articles has long been identified as a problem. Of course peer-review goes some way to judge an article’s impact before publication, and the open-peer review process in BMC Medicine also ensures transparency. There is a now a wave of interest in web-based tools that can measure article level metrics (e.g. Altmetric.com), which is a valuable way of complementing journal level metrics such as the IF. By pulling in discussions on social media, altmetric.com offers insights into who is talking about the research online. In March this year, BMC Medicine published results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, on the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with mortality. Given wide-spread popularity of processed meat, the results of the study led to an impressive response from the media and the public – including TV and radio news stations. The Guardian also ran a poll to gather public opinion on if this study had put people off eating processed meat (where 47% claimed their appetite for processed meat had decreased!). To date, the article has been accessed 73,176 times via the BMC Medicine website, and is in the top 5% of all articles ever tracked by Altmetric.

So, what is the true impact of a medical journal? It’s much more than an algorithm calculating the number of journal level citations over a specific time period. For a medical journal, I would argue it’s about publishing content that can potentially improve medical practices by offering valuable insight into mechanisms of diseases and guidance towards better research methods, which ultimately should lead to more informed clinical decisions and improved therapies. However, it’s also about encouraging debate on health issues not just within the clinical community, but also within the general public who are, after all the primary beneficiaries of the research.