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Pros and Cons of the Impact Factor

The impact factor (IF) is a number, a metric, a ‘way to keep score’ that is based upon the number of citations that articles published in a journal receive over a specific time. The IF reflects:

The average number of citations for each paper published in a journal during two preceding years

History of the impact factor

Publishing scientific research is a rewarding yet highly competitive endeavour. In the 1930s and 1940s, academic tenure committees began to place a higher value on research productivity – especially publications – than other responsibilities.

In following decades, research libraries became increasingly more selective in their journal acquisitions; they needed an easy way to determine the ‘best’ core journals in any given field. Citations of published articles became a metric; journals which were cited more frequently became preferred.

In the pre-internet era, citations and the number of articles published were two of the very few quantitative metrics that could be reliably obtained. Bibliometric experts measured what they had available and formulated it. 

Since the mid-1970s, the IF has been the de facto single most important and most widely well-known metric to denote the quality or impact of a scholarly journal. The IF provides an idea of how highly other scientists think of a journal, based on how often they refer to articles from it in their own work.

To learn more about the IF, read: Understanding the SCI and the Impact Factor

Importance of the impact factor

For decades, the IF has been the single most important metric measuring the ‘impact’ of scientific journals. This is because:

  • It is an established benchmark, widely used and relatively well understood.
  • As citations correlate highly to the opinions of peers, the IF gives a quantitative measurement of the relative strength of a journal.
  • Rightly or wrongly, the IF has been widely adopted by tenure committees to evaluate tenure and by funding agencies to award grants to authors.

Concerns with the impact factor

The advent of the internet and new bibliometric tools has revealed limits and disadvantages to the IF. These include:

  • Determining the IF of a journal is a slow process; journals accepted to the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) must wait three years to obtain their first IF.
  • IF calculations are done in a ‘black box’, making independent verification nearly impossible.
  • The IF assesses only one aspect of impact (citations) over a brief two-year period.
  • A key concern is that the IF is a measurement for a journal, not an individual article.
  • Even more problematic is that for most journals, the IF score is determined by a minority of its papers that are highly cited.
  • Following from that, a high IF score for a journal does not necessarily predict which, if any, individual papers in that journal will be highly cited. 

New metrics to consider

Myriad new metrics can be used instead of, or alongside impact factors, to evaluate the ‘real’ impact of authors and their publications. To know more about these metrics, read: Understanding alternative research metrics


No single metric is able to capture a solid understanding of the impact of an academic journal. To obtain the most complete understanding of both a journal’s and individual author’s (or article’s) impact, it is best to use a multiplicity of measurements and metrics.


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