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Tactics designed to raise impact

Brazilian journals tighten up procedures and turn to specialist editorial support in an effort to increase citations

A group of scientific journals published by Brazilian institutions has managed to raise its impact factor to a level that, although modest by international standards, is unprecedented in Brazil. According to the 2017 issue of Journal Citation Reports (JCR), an annual publication by Clarivate Analytics, from more than 130 Brazilian open access journals indexed in the Web of Science database, five had an impact factor (IF) of more than 2 in 2016, meaning that on average, the articles they published in the preceding two years were cited in other journals more than twice each in 2016. In the 2015 report, only three Brazilian titles achieved an IF of more than 2.

One of the new titles to achieve the feat was the Journal of Materials Research and Technology, which was included in the JCR for the first time in 2017, and has already taken second place among Brazilian journals, with an IF of 2.359. The publication was created in 2011 by the Brazilian Association of Metallurgy, Materials, and Mining (ABM), and five years ago adopted an aggressive strategy to build its reputation. First, it partnered with Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, who published the journal through their platform. It then actively sought out articles from foreign researchers. “When the journal was launched, it received a poor rating by Qualis, a Brazilian system used to evaluate the scientific output of graduate programs, so it was difficult to attract quality researchers in Brazil. We decided to pursue foreign authors,” says the journal’s editor in chief, Marc André Meyers. Of the 203 authors who submitted articles to the journal in 2015, 50 were Brazilian and 153 were from 20 other countries.

Meyers, who was born in Brazil and raised in the US, is a professor at the University of California, San Diego. He took charge of the journal in 2013 and helped to establish its position. The editorial board was reformed. “We approached renowned researchers from countries such as the UK, Germany, and Russia. The support provided by ABM and associate editor Sergio Neves Monteiro has been essential,” he says. The journal’s strong performance in the JCR has increased the number of submissions it is receiving. This year, it expects to publish 120 articles, selected from more than a thousand submissions.

The Brazilian journal with the highest IF in previous JCR reports maintained its position as the highest-ranked in the country. Created 108 years ago and renowned in the field of tropical diseases, Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz increased its IF from 1.789 citations per article in 2015 to 2.605 in 2016, and hopes to improve even further in future years. In 2016, the World Health Organization declared an emergency regarding the cases of microcephaly and their possible association with the Zika epidemic, recommending that journals publish the results of research on the disease without waiting for a rigorous peer review. The goal was to accelerate the dissemination of information about a little-known disease. Memórias created a fast track system for submissions related to Zika. “Two articles we published were heavily cited; one describing the first identification of the virus in Brazil, and another on the detection of Zika in the placenta,” says editor in chief Claude Pirmez, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.

The publication decided to extend the fast track system to articles on other epidemic diseases such as dengue fever and yellow fever. “We believe that preprints are the future of scientific publishing”, says the editor, referring to the model in which research results are made available online prior to peer review (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 254). At the same time, the journal has become more demanding: it now rejects more than 60% of the papers submitted, and the number of articles published per year has dropped from 180 in 2015 to 120 today. “It is important to be more selective in order to demonstrate the good science that is being produced in Brazil.”

A common denominator in the strategies adopted by journals is an effort to make article selection more rigorous. The Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Brazilian journal of psychiatry) offers another example. As the number of manuscripts submitted has risen, the proportion of articles rejected has grown to 70% of the total in 2017, up from 50% in 2016. “Our goal is to reach 85% in 2018,” says editor in chief Antonio Egidio Nardi, from the Institute of Psychiatry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The journal had an IF of 2.049 in 2016, compared to 1.391 in 2009, when it appeared in the JCR for the first time. This progress began in the 1990s, says Nardi, when the journal began publishing articles in English only.

Editorial support
Some journals have sought specialist editorial support to improve their performance. A few years ago, Elsevier offered Brazilian journals—which are generally associated with scientific societies and universities—the opportunity to outsource their organization and publishing processes. Only around a dozen journals contracted the services, which are no longer offered. “Some sectors of the scientific community did not fully understand, and there were claims that we were taking over the journals, which was not true,” says Dante Cid, vice president of academic relations for Elsevier in Latin America.

But there are other support options. Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome, the publication ranked third in Brazil by the JCR with an IF of 2.347 citations per article, established a partnership with BioMed Central (BMC), an online, open access journal platform linked to the Springer Nature group. BMC adopts strategies specifically designed to increase the IF of its publications, such as appointing a high-level editorial board capable of prospecting quality articles, and being highly selective in its review process, even if this results in the publication of only a small number of papers. One strategy recently implemented by the journal was a reduction of the review period—where it previously took up to 100 days to provide authors with a response, it now makes the decision within 45 days. According to Sergio Vencio, the journal’s editor in chief, the change has not made the selection criteria any less strict. “I was recently in a situation where I was unable to find anyone to review an article, so I suggested that BMC give a positive response based on just one opinion. They refused.” The journal is dedicated to transdisciplinary research topics of interest to endocrinologists, cardiologists, geriatricians, and physical educators. “Brazil has a strong diabetes research community, but they mostly publish abroad. We identified a niche,” says Vencio.

The publications with the highest IFs have all invested in internationalization and have active publishers, says Abel Packer, coordinator of SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online). “These journals have been improving over time. Those at the top of the list have been publishing articles in English only for a long time, which increases the opportunity for citation,” he says. Many of these journals are from the fields of health and biology. According to Packer, in addition to the general quality of the journals, higher IFs can also be explained by the fact that these fields have a higher citation rate than others. “There are, however, other journals that perform very well relative to the popularity of their field, such as those in the agrarian sciences. Scientia Agricola is the best example: the journal had the greatest relative impact in 2015 and the third greatest in 2016.” SciELO was created by FAPESP in 1997, with the support of the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), to improve the quality of Brazilian journals. The library now offers open access to 283 journals online. Of the five Brazilian journals with an IF above 2, three are available on SciELO. “Brazil, supported by SciELO, is developing the capacity to produce journals of similar editorial quality to commercial publishers, which has enriched the national scientific publishing market with more efficient and cheaper solutions,” says Packer. “Some Brazilian companies even provide publishing services to journals from other countries. Brazilian journals published by international publishers do not have any competitive advantage in terms of citations.”

Increasing the IF of a publication generally takes time. For the editor of Jornal de Pediatria (Brazilian journal of pediatrics), Renato Procianoy, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the growth of the journal’s IF—which was 2 in 2015 and 2016, compared to 1.194 in 2014—is the result of a strategy started in the 2000s, when the journal was incorporated into the SciELO library and began following international publishing standards. It later joined the Web of Science, and in 2005, it started accepting articles in English only. “In 2009, our IF was measured for the first time at 1.13. We maintained a similar level until it reached 2 in the last two years, due to our policy of actively seeking high-quality articles.”

Being selective helps showcase the high-quality science being produced in Brazil, says Claude Pirmez, editor in chief of Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz

The trajectory of the Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins including Tropical Diseases (JVATITD) is punctuated by strategies designed to increase its prominence. Between 2007 and 2014, its IF ranged from 0.35 to 0.5, but it tripled its influence and achieved a score of 1.447 in 2017. “We had begun asking ourselves whether there was any point in continuing to spend public money on a journal that had little global influence. We decided to look for a partner to help us,” says the editor in chief, Benedito Barraviera, from the Botucatu Medical School at São Paulo State University (UNESP). The journal, published by the UNESP Center for the Study of Toxins and Venomous Animals, is now associated with BMC, which recommended some changes. It reduced the number of papers published per year from 70 to 40, started indexing its articles on the PubMed Central database, and strengthened the editorial staff. “BMC suggested that we choose high-level and committed researchers from Brazil and abroad, and that we seek out high-quality articles,” says Barraviera.

The journal has adopted some controversial strategies. Members of the editorial board are encouraged to submit their best articles to the journal. “Some people see this as a conflict of interest, despite the fact that these submissions undergo peer review like all the others and can be rejected,” he says. Barraviera also argues that members of the editorial board should cite articles from the journal when they publish articles in high-impact international journals and should suggest references to articles published in JVATITD when they are invited to give opinions on papers from other publications. “Every journal should have a robust database of all the papers it has published, to support the peer review process. There the reviewer can find interesting and relevant articles, and suggest them for reading,” he says. “A good reviewer always focuses on improving the article, suggesting changes to a paper in the form of further reading or the addition or deletion of texts and references. This doesn’t change the journal’s IF, but it does increase its visibility and prestige. The author always has the final say; they choose whether to accept the suggestions of the peer reviews or not.”

But suggesting citations is not recommended by the Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers, which were released in 2013 by the Committee on Publication Ethics, a group of scientific journal editors—including 69 from Brazil—whose aim is to define best practices in relation to scientific integrity. The document states that reviewers should “Refrain from suggesting that authors include citations to their (or an associate’s) work merely to increase citation counts or to enhance the visibility of these works.” According to Sonia Vasconcelos, a professor at UFRJ and an expert in scientific integrity, such practices “are far from those recommended for the responsible referencing of literature. Besides being ethically questionable, they weaken the credibility of the articles.”

Similarly, the editors of some journals in Brazil believe that although the IF is a good indicator of quality, increasing it at any cost can detract from the role of the publication. “Our goal is to produce a quality journal. The impact factor is a consequence of this,” says sociologist Leopoldo Antunes, from the School of Public Health at the University of São Paulo (USP) and editor of Revista de Saúde Pública (Journal of public health), whose IF grew from 0.862 in 2010 to 1.353 in 2017. It publishes articles in both English and Portuguese, with the editors believing the journal should reconcile internationalization with the mission of disseminating health research in Brazil. “The journal is a point of reference for researchers as well as for an audience of health professionals and policy makers,” says Antunes.

Development and operation of the SciELO library from November 1, 2016, to October 31, 2019 (No. 15/26964-1) Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Abel Laerte Packer (UNIFESP Support Foundation); Investment R$21,756,884.07 (for the whole project).