28 November 2016

Are footnotes a way to game the Impact Factor?

One of Bradley Voytek’s 99 problems is strange journal demands:

Major journal said we can’t cite biorxiv papers; instead must reference them via footnotes.

I have been rankled by journals’ refusals to cite non-traditional sources before. But this journal wasn’t refusing to acknowledge to a source. It was refusing to acknowledge a source in a certain way.

This puzzled me momentarily, but I have a hypothesis. Any time a journal talks about fiddling with citations, there is a prime suspect as to why: the journal Impact Factor. I strongly suspect that footnotes aren’t counted in the calculations of journal Impact Factor like terminal references are, even though footnotes and a reference list in this case would serve the same purpose: to credit a source so that people can find it.

What a journal might have to gain by keeping pre-print servers out of citations? It doesn’t enhance the journal’s own Impact Factor. It doesn’t enhance anyone’s Impact Factor, for that matter. Denying citations to pre-print servers seems futile, since pre-print servers don’t have Impact Factors.

While pre-print servers don’t have Impact Factors, including citations to them might make it easier to collect data about their use. There seems little doubt that the majority of citation analysis is done by text mining and algorithms, rather than by hand. (Notwithstanding the contention by Brembs et al. (2013) that Impact Factors are often negotiated.)

For journals, the very act of data collection about pre-print servers might feel threatening to them. There are some researchers who want journals to die across the board and wouldn’t mind if pre-print servers (or something like them) rose up to take their place. If it becomes clear through citation analysis that more and more studies on pre-printe servers are being cited as reliable sources of information, the uncomfortable question for journals arises:

“What are journals for, exactly?”

Update, 29 November 2016: Bradley Voytek reports that the situation has changed:

The journal editors discussed and changed their policies to allow preprints with DOIs.

How interesting.


Brembs B, Button K, Munafò M. 2013. Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291

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