I received the following unsolicited email (slightly curtailed) from the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Dear Dr Murray Rust
Quality is the focus at RSC Publishing: the recently published 2010 Journal Citation Reports ® prove that our quality is better than ever. And that is thanks to our authors and referees.
Our average impact factor (IF) now stands at 5.5. It's an impressive figure, especially when compared with the average for a chemistry journal* of 2.54.
But if you're thinking that there's nothing special about this, as most chemistry publishers are celebrating an overall rise in their impact factors, think again. RSC Publishing figures have risen by 63% since 2003 – almost double the average rise.
Of the top 20 journals in the multidisciplinary chemistry category, six are from RSC Publishing. No other publisher has more.
83% of our journals listed in this year's report have an IF above 3. No other publisher can boast such a large proportion of titles at this level, demonstrating just how well-cited our entire portfolio truly is.
(Data based on 2010 Journal Citation Reports ®, (Thomson Reuters, 2011).
I have two concerns – one with the impact factor (see below) and one with the RSC's use of bulk unsolicited email (SPAM). Dealing with the second first:
A European Directive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privacy_and_Electronic_Communications_%28EC_Directive%29_Regulations_2003) makes it clear that the RSC's activity is illegal:
One of the key points of this legislation is that it is unlawful to send someone direct marketing who has not specifically granted permission (via an opt-in agreement). Organisations cannot merely add peoples details to their marketing database and offer an opt out after they have started sending direct marketing. For this reason the regulations offer more consumer protection from direct marketing.
I will be interested to hear from them why they have broken this directive and why I should not report them. I am not on any of their mailing lists and this type of mail wastes my time and fills up my mailbox. Even if it turns out that there is a legal loophole it is unethical to waste scientists time in this manner. But it was the RSC itself which opined that Open Access publishing was "ethically flawed" – have they ever retracted that opinion formally?
The main issue however is general – the growing and mindless use of Impact Factors and some measure of "quality". There are many reasons why IFs are frequently meaningless (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_factor#Editorial_policies_which_alter_the_impact_factor ). Bjorn Brembs at #okcon2011 gave us a presentation showing how IFs were fundamentally flawed and how publishers could negotiate to get them adjusted favourably (see http://www.slideshare.net/brembs/whats-wrong-with-scholarly-publishing-today-ii - this is an old sldeshow and if Bjorn reads this maybe he can update anything). Objectively I see the following:
- There is no objective definition of what a citation is. As far as I can see it's a mixture of what the closed commercial indexing organization thinks it is and the negotiating publisher. If we are going down the mindless citation route then at least we need Open Citations. But if we extract lists of bibliographic references (citations) from publications then we will be sued by the publishers. So citations are whatever the powerful forces in the publishing industry want them to be.
- IFs are per journal. This about as meaningful a measure of worth as deciding that a person is well-dressed because they shop at a given store. You can be badly dressed with expensive cloths and vice versa. And the worth of academic publications is about as hard to measure as style. It's what we collectively think, not what we write in citation lists. The journal is an outdated concept in the current world – it exists only to brand publications (its use as a collection for disseminating a subject is disappearing). It's like saying "X is a good blogger because their blog is hosted by Y and lots of people read Y". No, people say "X writes good blog posts". There's enough technology in the world that we can have per-author metrics, but it won't suit the publishers because then we shall evaluate science by the worth of individuals rather than the strength of the marketing department of a money-making institution. And that's anathema to the publishers.
The sad thing is that young people have now been terrified by the Impact and H factors, and I can't give them much hope. When I published my first paper in 1967 (J. Chem. Soc. (now the RSC), Chemical Communications) I did it because I had a piece of science I was excited about and wanted to tell the world about. That ethos has gone. It's now "I have to publish X first author-papers in Y journals with impact factors great than Z".
I can't see how to change that other than by disruptive action in the publishing world. When I have fully worked out what that is I will start doing it and persuading other people to do it. Hopefully it will be legal. If not I shall be prepared to take the consequences.