If you’ve ever thought about publishing, you’ve probably heard all about impact factors.
Here’s how they work: the impact factor of a journal measures how often an average article within that journal is cited per year. It’s calculated by dividing the number of citations to that journal over the past two years by the number of citable articles published in those two years.
Impact factors are often used to evaluate journals – i.e., it’s generally considered more prestigious (and often more competitive) to publish in a journal with a high impact factor than a low one. You can use impact factors strategically to maximise your publication record. For instance, as a postgrad, you might want to co-write with more senior colleagues to get your work into a high impact factor journal; though you might also accept publishing in lower impact journals initially to build up the number of research outputs you have to your name. It’s a matter of personal career strategy.
But impact factors are not an exact science. For a start, disciplines vary in how quickly they pick up and cite articles. Because impact factors measure recent citations only, they tend to favour fields that respond quickly; so an impact factor that would be amazing for a maths journal would be poor for a genetics journal. Plus impact factors measure citations as an indication of the influence of the journal; but some work can be influential without being highly cited (or vice versa). To complicate matters further, predatory publishers have been known to fabricate high impact factors for their journals.
With that in mind, impact factors – while sometimes strategically useful – don’t directly or consistently measure the influence your work will have in the real world. It would be great if there was some magical measure that could predict how many eyes your writing would encounter, and how many brains your research could be exposed to. But that kind of measure doesn’t exist. So how can we rethink this notion of impact?
If you’re interested in making a real-world impact with your research, one of the best ways to do that is through making your work accessible to scholars at all levels. If my thesis is read by a scholar with decades of expertise in my field, it may marginally enrich – but not radically alter – that scholar’s level of understanding. But think about undergraduates. If my research reaches an undergraduate who is just beginning their research on my topic, there is huge scope for influence. The undergraduate is new to the subject area, and needs a lot of help to comprehend it. If I communicate my research in a way that is accessible to that undergraduate, I might make a huge difference to their level of understanding. Plus the pool of undergraduates is enormous, so my potential sphere of influence is vast.
This isn’t always the case – some research will not appeal to undergraduates, but could make a big difference to experts. If you’ve discovered something that is revolutionary to a highly specific branch of your field, then it makes sense to package your research for a sophisticated expert audience.
But if your research has broad appeal, then writing in an accessible way can be a terrific strategy to maximise your real-world impact. That doesn’t mean dumbing down your language; but it does mean avoiding unnecessary complication. Why obfuscate your academic compositions with mellifluous yet superfluous embellishments when you can just write what you mean (within the language standards of your field)?
Of course, the type of impact you want to have as a scholar is a very personal thing. But thinking about our influence in a wider way can really improve our job satisfaction as academics, and can refresh our concept of impact in an academic world that often defines it very narrowly.