Do Impact Factors Matter in Nursing?

I just got back from my first Academy of Management Conference and I was astonished by the emphasis on the importance and status of publishing in “A-level” management and business journals.  In nursing there is not a whole lot of emphasis on this and I started to wonder why not?   Is it because I’m studying in Canada?  Are we less knowledgeable about impact factors in Nursing?  Am I naive about the effect journal choice can have on my academic career?   Are there A-level journals that I don’t know about?   The purpose of this post is to give a brief overview of what impact factors mean in nursing and find out if there are “A-level” journals that I should know about.

What is an impact factor?

Impact factors are a measure of how often articles from a particular journal have been referenced by other articles.   The idea is that the best articles will be used by other researchers in the future, thus spreading good ideas and having an “impact” on the field.  Apparently in business and management departments at colleges and universities they often have formalized lists of “A-level” (best), “B-level” (better), and “C-level” (good) journals and professors’ careers are largely influenced by their ability to get articles published in the best journals.   I have been fortunate to work with very productive and supportive research teams and supervisors in kinesiology, medicine, and nursing where all article publications are celebrated equally.  Granted, if you get an article published in Nature or The Lancet that is a really big deal for anybody.

How do you interpret impact factors?

Impact factors were created to measure article and journal quality so the best journal should be listed first, followed by the second-best, etc.  However that is not true for nursing journals.  For example, right now the journal with the highest impact factor in nursing is Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care (impact factor = 2.84 [Science Watch, 2013]).   Does this mean that this is the “best” journal in nursing?   If you are studying issues related to childbirth and nursing, then absolutely!  Otherwise, probably not.  The journal’s high impact factor probably reflects the fact that a lot of nursing scholars are doing work in this area and that it is a popular resource for those scholars.  While I am sure that there is interesting and valuable work in there, I am doubtful that I will ever read, cite, or publish an article from this journal because it is unrelated to my research interests.   This raises the question of how useful it is to compare nursing journals that have different aims and audiences.  I think ranking is helpful but sub-categories and/or discretion are also required.

Impact on Research, Practice, or Both?

Another thing to consider is that an article could have a powerful impact on nursing practice despite not being cited by other researchers.  Many nurses taking DNP, NP, master’s, and bachelor-level degrees are not necessarily going to be conducting research but they are likely to be knowledge consumers that apply the findings of nursing research to their professional practice.  On the other hand, just because an article is well-known and often cited by other academics doesn’t necessarily mean that the article had an impact on practice (i.e. real life).  In fact, it is possible that an article could be cited a lot because people disagree with it or because it reflects an old way of thinking about something that is no longer relevant but helps the reader position new work.  Therefore, I believe that impact factors are an incomplete measure of actual impact.

Are there A-level Journals in Nursing?

Out of curiosity I looked up the promotion and tenure criteria for several prominent nursing schools in Canada and the U.S. and couldn’t find any evidence of a formal “good, better, best” categories of nursing journals, though all considered article quality and quantity as one indicator of productivity.   This leads me to believe that publishing in higher ranking nursing journals is still better but that there is room for discretion based on the topic or focus area of the work (e.g. maybe the #1 journal in mental health nursing is ranked 20th overall but still deserves credit for being the best in the specialty area).

What is the value of impact factors in nursing?

Impact factors can give us an idea of what areas of nursing research are most popular and receive the most attention by other scholars.  The relatively low impact factors in nursing compared to some prolific medical journals may also indicate that nurses are more likely to cite sources outside of nursing whereas other disciplines are unlikely to cite nursing scholarship (Polit & Northam, 2011).   As a developing scholar I certainly want my work to be taken up by others and make a difference, both in research and in practice.

Comparing impact factors of journals that are in the same specialty or research area makes sense and can help distinguish between different levels of scholarship quality, however we can’t just use the list as is to rank all of the journals in nursing without considering their specific focus.  In addition, it is important to create ways to assess and evaluate the impact that nursing research and scholarship has on nursing practice and, in particular, patient care and health outcomes.  Impact factors are important indicators of scholarship quality and academic success and productivity but they don’t paint the whole picture!

 

References:

Polit, D. F., & Northam, S. (2011). Impact factors in nursing journals. Nursing outlook59(1), 18-28. Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/jcnjournal/Documents/ImactFactors_NursingOutlook_2011.pdf

Science Watch.  (2013).  Journals ranked by impact: Nursing.  Retrieved from http://archive.sciencewatch.com/dr/sci/10/mar28-10_1/

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