Unpredictable visibility

Successful dissemination of research results depends on more factors than simply publishing them in periodicals with a high impact factor

Ana MatsusakiSome of the rewards that researchers hope to reap, such as recognition of research results, partnership opportunities and project financing, have a greater chance of succeeding if they are linked to the publication of articles in journals with a high impact factor (IF). However, having an article accepted in a more prestigious periodical is not sufficient to guarantee more citations, just as publication in journals with a lower impact does not mean the article will not be important for a scientist’s work. The dissemination of research results and how the scientific community reacts to them depend on other factors as well.

“Publication in highly prestigious journals is no guarantee that an article will necessarily be cited more often,” says Gilson Volpato, a retired professor from São Paulo State University and a specialist in methodology and scientific writing. The advent of the Internet caused an upheaval in how papers are disseminated in the scientific community. On the one hand, printed periodicals began to publish their content online, but with restricted access, and a signature or compensation for an article that was accessed was required.  On the other hand, the Internet paved the way for creating open access publications that exist only online, such as PLOS One, and repositories of preprints, such as arXiv and bioRxiv, which make manuscripts available for reading and comments before they are submitted to periodicals for publication (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 254).

The growth in the number and importance of open access journals and repositories produced a major disruption similar to the one journalism has experienced in recent years, says Rafael Evangelista, a social scientist and researcher at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism. Journals are no longer the only source for searching for articles: “The vehicles are less important and content has become fragmented. Today it’s articles that are circulating, and not journals.” This circulation will tend to be greater for open access periodicals; the restricted access of a periodical with a high impact can lessen the chances that the article will be read and cited. “However, publication in a journal with a lower impact factor, but one that is more open, may attract more visibility and have greater repercussions.” This is reinforced by digital platforms such as Web of Science, which has led to diversification in searches for papers. “A good scientist looks in many databases, so that they search for articles and not specific journals,” Volpato says.

Citations of articles tend to come from researchers in the specific area to which the study in the paper refers. Journals with a very high IF, such as Nature (38.1) and Science (34.6), are frequently more general than publications that are specific or of regional interest, whose visibility is almost always lower. Carlos Eduardo Paiva, an oncologist at the Cancer Hospital in Barretos, a city in inland São Paulo State, says that the audience that is really interested in an article may be larger for a specific journal in a given field than in another with higher impact but of more general interest.

Paiva is a co-author of a recent study published online in the periodical eCancerMedicalScience, which points out differences in conditions for knowledge production by researchers in different countries. The research was based on the analysis of questionnaires answered by 269 researchers with different profiles: those that published in journals with a high IF (13.9 to 51.5) and a low IF (0.5 to 1.0). The selection base was the IF of general medicine periodicals classified by the 2012 Journal Citations Report.

Ana Matsusaki“Researchers who published in journals with a higher impact succeeded in obtaining more financial resources for their research; they were more skilled in preparing their manuscripts, lived in countries with higher GDP [gross domestic product], and spoke English. They were in charge of more students and spent more time on research,” Paiva reports. Scientists who do not have these ideal conditions would have fewer opportunities to publish in a high-IF periodical. However, even with an article in a journal with a low IF, a scientist’s work can resonate among peers and receive citations.

Paiva’s line of research is an example. He works in the area of palliative care and quality of life for treating cancer. Publications that include papers in general oncology research can have a high IF, such as the Journal of Clinical Oncology (20.9). Journals that specialize in palliative care, such as Supportive Care in Cancer, have a relatively low IF (2.5), but their impact is high in their specific area. “Articles on palliative care, nursing and medical education are accessed often by researchers in those areas, which is important for dissemination and the impact of research results.”

The situation is the same for the regional character of certain research, for example, in the field of agriculture. “Findings from studies with regional appeal will probably be published in journals that interest a highly specific group of researchers, usually with a lower IF,” says Mariana Biojone, director of Springer in Brazil, one of the largest publishers of international periodicals. “But greater circulation among scientists with the same interests means that the paper may be more visible and receive many citations.”

However, publication in journals with lower impact, but ones that are more geared toward a given area, may be a good strategy for disseminating work; it should be noted that many still consider the IF as an indicator of the importance and quality of a scientific journal. In Brazil, it is the main criterion that the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) uses for the Qualis index, a stratification of domestic and foreign periodicals. The index carries significant weight for the Brazilian graduate program evaluations for which Capes is responsible.

Physicist Peter Schulz, who specializes in scientometrics at the Unicamp School of Applied Sciences, believes that researchers should always try to publish in journals with a high impact. He notes that these periodicals are more selective and that submitting articles to them may result in a more critical evaluation of the work. “It is an important benchmark practice for researchers. However, successfully publishing in a more prestigious journal is not a guarantee of greater impact; rather, it is an investment in more visibility,” he observes.