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Impact Factor versus Impact of Research – and why you need to think about both

The ‘impact’ of a piece of research is difficult to quantify. For that reason, researchers often turn to the impact factor (IF) of journals within which they are published – a metric taking into account the number of papers published in a certain journal, and the number of times, on average, each paper is cited elsewhere. Unfortunately, there has been an unhealthy overreliance on IFs in the academic space, which calls to question whether this is a useful metric, and is prompting researchers to rethink their take on ‘impact’.

The limitations of impact factors

As academics, we have most commonly thought about impact in terms of IF, which attempts to boil impact down into a number that can easily be compared. The trouble is that IF reflects only the reach of a journal, and while it’s the best we have, it by no means is the best way to judge the impact of your own work.

It’s important to see impact factor as what it is: one metric of one method of dissemination. Let’s look at an example.

Say you work in a niche subject area. Your work will most likely be of high quality, but may not be within remit for the big journals to publish, either because they know that their readership expects different content, or simply because it does not fit into the overall theme of the journal. This means that researchers in niche areas tend to be forced to go for more niche journals, which by default have low IFs, simply because there do not happen to be many papers citing content from these journals due to their niche nature.

For this reason, while the more generalist journals with high IFs have IFs of 30+, when comparing specialist journals with one another, a single-digit impact factor can be considered fairly high

For more, read: Pros and Cons of the Impact Factor

It may help therefore to consider other ways you as a researcher can generate impact for your work.

Other ways of creating impact

Engaging with the public

By engaging in impactful activities during your research, you are reaching audiences other than those in academia (outside your ‘academic bubble’, so to speak).

So, consider activities such as:

Driving change

Research impact isn’t just about communicating your research. Ultimately, if you affect others with your research, that is impact. More and more universities therefore are pushing for commercial application of academic research.

  • This may take the form of the academic taking it into their own hands to commercialise their research, or industry taking notice and working to collaborate on a product. This can result in real change, where your innovation might improve common practices and processes (or quality of life) or even save lives.
  • Another way to be a force for change is to influence policymakers by engaging with them. If your research can be applied to current issues, communicating this to the right stakeholders can go a long way.

End note

We need to think more broadly when it comes to impact. Sure, it’s a fantastic achievement to publish in high-impact journals, but consider what your overall goal is in research. Rather than just looking at the IF score, judging the impact of your research in terms of the wider reaching impact that it might have succeeded in creating is a better way to tell for yourself whether your research has resulted in greater convenience or ease of living for the public. Focusing on the research’s wider-reaching impact and ensuring that you do your research for public good will help you to feel fulfilled, and may even inspire future scientists.


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