Are Journal Impact Rankings Still Relevant?

by | Apr 12, 2018

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Impact factors are a measure of the quality and importance of scientific findings. Journals with high impact factors publish articles that are widely cited. This raises a question for Medical Affairs practitioners: Is the number of citations to an article a useful metric for estimating the article’s value when monitoring medical research?

Let’s consider what types of articles are widely cited. The most widely cited paper, according to Science, describes a method for measuring proteins. Other top papers describe methods in biology, statistics, and crystallography. Within cardiology, the most widely cited papers provide guidelines on managing heart failure, cholesterol, and patients with atrial fibrillation. The top papers in nephrology include a report on baseline characteristics of kidney functions, end-of-life preferences and needs, and predicting mortality.

The key takeaway here: Methodology and guidelines are widely referenced topics across the biomedical field and articles about these topics are likely to boost a publishing journal’s impact factor. However, these highly-cited articles may not be as relevant to Medical Affairs work as more niche topics, such as adverse events in patients using a new cardiovascular drug.

Impact factors also reflect the type of research conducted in the scientific community. There are many factors that influence the choice of research questions and a major one is funding. Agencies in the United States, such as NIH and NSF, largely shape the focus of medical research in this country. Priorities for the NIH include precision medicine in cancer treatment, multi-strain influenza vaccines, and improving health in populations that experience health disparities. As a result of current NIH funding, high-impact papers are expected to be published in these areas over the next several years. These are all important areas of research, and many will directly impact pharmacological advances. But impact factors alone are not helpful for identifying which papers within these broad research areas are most relevant to Medical Affairs.

Impact factors reflect how broadly useful a paper or journal is to the scientific and medical communities. However, in Medical Affairs research, more specialized papers provide valuable information. The high-impact journal Cell has an impact factor of about 30, while the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology has an impact factor of 2. But when it comes to drug interactions, adverse effects, and other issues of interest to Medical Affairs professionals, which journal is more likely to provide the most relevant insights? Probably the latter.

Specialization is a more important consideration than impact factor when conducting Medical Affairs research. Real-world evidence collected by practicing physicians in community hospitals is not likely to be published in a major journal, but it could offer valuable data and insights about adverse effects of a drug. Medical conferences with a narrow focus, such as the annual symposium on movement disorders, maybe the only place where certain research findings are presented, so it’s important to also capture meetings when gathering data.

Impact factors are useful for multiple purposes, from identifying journals with broadly useful papers to helping academic committees make tenure decisions. They may also contain valuable insights, but specialized journals and the proceedings of medical conferences are more likely to cover the topics that are most relevant to Medical Affairs professionals.

To get a comprehensive view of relevant research, a dynamic impact approach, weighting these elements, is a more valuable approach to Medical Affairs professionals than solely relying on static impact factors.

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