Impact Factor or Fetish: What high IF publications really mean

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Do you have Impact Factor (IF) publications? This is the most common question being asked for any teaching position at any university whether it is private or public. In fact, even research centers and think tanks have started to focus on IF publications. Universities have made the number of IF publications one of the most important criterion for promotion and tenure.

Is the increasing number of IF publications having real impact on society?

According to the latest Web of Science (WoS) data, 2019 marked the first year in which the impact of WoS publications has been higher than the world average, highlighting a greater push towards research and development in the country.

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However, the question is, is this increasing number of IF publications having any real impact on society? Are Pakistani universities now producing better students? Are research think tanks producing scholarly work making headway within public policy corridors? And, what of the difference between Science IF publications of universities and Social Sciences or Humanities?

Unfortunately, there is scarce data to show there is any real impact on the ground. The correlation between good teaching and the number of IF publications is inconclusive.

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Do not confuse the number of IF publications with research as both are different. Publications are a quantifiable output of research. They are an indicator of the kind of research with various categories of journals determining ‘quality.’

Read More: Coronavirus and Tech: How COVID-19 has brought tech initiative into education

Trend of prestigious journals retracting highly cited papers

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However, even if one is able to get published in high IF journals, one cannot be sure of quality and impact. If I convince ten students to cite my paper ten times, does that mean my citation analysis is indicative of the excellent quality of my work? Since 2019 and 2020, the trend of prestigious journals retracting highly cited papers has been on the rise.

Readers may recall the infamous Lancet paper by Andrew Wakefield that originally suggested a link between autism and childhood vaccines; and the once most ‘Highly Cited Paper’ as per Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (meaning it was ranked in the top one percent of all papers in its subject field in the last 10 years) published in 2011 on cancer which was retracted by Nature!

The latter was cited 670 times before it was retracted! Recent retractions of the flood of papers on COVID-19 are another example. Papers are retracted because of creative plagiarism, data fudging and duplicate publications, amongst others.

Read More: Unpopular view: How education can prevent the progress of society

IF publications: Publish or perish?

Publish or perish is the new normal for professors in Pakistan. Over the past decade, there has been a surge in the number of journals and every new born journal waits for the Holy Education Commission.. (Sorry Higher Education Commission) to baptize them and put them in their newly created Journal Recognition System so it becomes ‘legitimate.’

There are other international agencies like Clarivate Analytics and Scopus which offer international ‘legitimacy’, prestige and visibility. Of course, universities and journals have no choice but to follow the Commandments (read policies) that come down from the HEC rather than setting their sights on exclusively international prestige and visibility. After all, how else can the HEC remain relevant?

The world has moved away from the European mode of research which was all about independent scholarship and substantial research output to the more mechanized tenure track American model. Institutions have started journals, conferences and developed rules for tenure like a gaming system.

There are gangs/cliques of professors who publish on seemingly hot topics like COVID-19 without having any background on health economics or infectious diseases using data sets created out of thin air as if they are the flavor of the month. The same gangs also run and manage various national indexing agencies and journals.

Read More: Pakistan education system on knife’s edge

How useful are such papers to the general masses?

One meets professors with high h-index and 100 or more IF papers but their publications have never moved the needle in terms of solving real world problems. We are in the era of bit twiddling research which has big data sets using data analytics but in reality how useful are such papers to the general masses?

How many policy makers actually use or cite them? How many even know of their existence? Forget, policy makers, how many students actually quotes or read such papers for their theses in Pakistan, not including their own professors or supervisors? Do our media personnel use these high IF papers in their news articles or talk shows?

In early 1960s till 1980s, most Pakistani universities were not expected to do a lot of research (I’m talking of the non-sciences) and even non PhDs were teaching at graduate level. As the PhD competition started and scholarships from various countries were offered under the Higher Education Commission, Pakistan mass-produced PhDs. As per PhD Association of Pakistan (PAP), 3,000 PhDs in the country will be jobless by the end of 2020.

That, I would say is a huge achievement and will certainly have IMPACT rather than their IF publications needed to earn this highest degree, won’t you say? Performance metric in higher education has changed from number of service years/experience to more focus on ‘publications.’ The ‘Tenure Track System (TTS)’ was introduced which in simple words is a daily wage professor in comparison to BPS system. TTS system made research mandatory for every TTS academic.

It is not just to individual scholars that ‘IF publications’ has become the Holy Grail. It is an important criterion for university rankings. Universities now prefer to hire faculty with an excellent track record of publications who may (or may not) be good teachers. Like I discussed earlier, there is no guarantee that well published scholar will also be able to motivate and inspire and lead the next generation.

Read More: Is our Education System Responsive to our needs?

The quality of student body which is sent out into the market place is weak

International surveys and research shows that even in universities with high IF publications, the quality of the student body which is sent out into the market place is weak.

Any and every employer finds themselves re-training these recruits as universities have not groomed nor taught them the requisite skill sets. Pakistani think tanks find themselves planning ‘capacity building sessions on how to conduct ethical, quality-driven research’ for graduates of public sector universities.

The private sector laments the lack of graduates with any practical or field experience. More than 80 percent publications in social sciences have not been cited once, only 20 percent of the published are read, half of the papers are read by the authors, reviewers and journal editors only.

Only 5 percent of professors use their own publications in their courses. An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. Any one complete issue of a high IF journal, anywhere in the world, let alone Pakistan, has most likely been read cover to cover by its editor/s.

Read More: Is our Education system actually teaching: The answer is NO

The current state of affairs in Pakistan

With this state of affairs why so much stress on ‘IF publications’ being mandatory for professors and scholars? Is this tireless, thankless, impact-less effort only for promotions and salary raise? With so much emphasis on this areas, there is a tradeoff between teaching and actual research.

The cost of lowering teaching load to support research is enormous on universities. The emphasis on research, however, is expensive and leads often to a trivial addition to the stock of knowledge. Diminishing returns set into research.

An interesting observation in case of Pakistan is that the young breed of professors have secured very high IF publications in comparison to the Mr Chips category professors who are old school mostly living on insurance and struggling to retain their Emeritus or ‘Professor’ status simply on the basis of their golden past and positions.

These Mr Chips scholars mostly hold senior positions, appear on television, write in newspapers, continually recycle their Stone Age thesis and papers and these days regularly appear on webinars. Now, the point to ponder for our young publishing hawks is: what is the use of these high IF publications if they are unable to ‘clean bold’ such professors?

Academics aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioners’ decision-making in Pakistan. But our bureaucrats or politicians very rarely read their articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Disconnect between IF publications and policy issues 

As pointed out earlier, it will not be an exaggeration that our policy makers hardly know the name of any peer reviewed journal in Pakistan, let alone the world. There is a huge disconnect between these IF publications and the issues policy makers are dealing with, like utopia versus the real world.

It is time to broaden how a professor’s performance is currently being assessed. For tenure and promotion considerations, their impact on the lives of students; impact on policy formulations and public debates should be assessed. How many students was he/she able to motivate and inspire? How many learned to color outside the lines – to boldly go where no one has gone before in the service of their country, their families and themselves?

Academic scholars should be encouraged to contribute in newspapers, develop vlogs, blogs, to develop linkages with policymakers and think tanks and showcase the practical relevance and potential application of their research results to solve real world problems through policy-focused ideas and risk assessments, and ability to communicate in a simple, understandable manner. Gone are the days when people (heck, anyone) had time for an 8,000 word research paper!

The writer is a Behavioral Economist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aneelsalman@gmail.comThe views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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