Open Access

Impact factor and medical education – a metric of no value?

Neel Sharma[1]

Institution: 1. Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center
Corresponding Author: Dr Neel Sharma ([email protected])
Categories: Medical Education (General), Scholarship/Publishing
Published Date: 23/11/2016
Keywords: scholarship


A recent discussion among colleagues East and West led me to a unifying conclusion. That unfortunately getting the message across of the value of medical education as an academic discipline proved difficult. Colleagues many of whom who were trained at a time when medical education and the science of learning was not as well known or understood recited one uniform message: that the impact factor of many medical education journals is low. Well I guess I can’t argue with that. However their thinking is based on the collective thinking of many academic institutions. Impact factor guides establishments. It is felt that the higher the factor the higher the value of the work in question. And it seems that so called high impact factor work is proving a measure for promotion, funding and recognition among one’s academic community. I for one have issues with this notion. It is well known that the concept of impact factor as a metric is not devoid of manipulation. Self-citation which is common practice among authors publishing within a particular journal can bump up the factor. In addition, most papers published within a typically regarded high impact factor journal are not cited heavily bar the odd few. Article views and citations are also out of synch. There are many papers that receive significant views but do not end up being cited. Therefore the notion of impact factor as an element of valuing medical education is, in essence, meaningless.

Yet it seems many institutes maintain an over rigid thinking approach to impact in general. And value added in the field. There have been some movements in medical education recognising that publishing a paper be it research or reflective should not be the sole indicator of scholarship. And certain institutes are recognising the value of a strong teaching involvement where faculty are acknowledged based on teaching delivered in line with the science of teaching and the feedback they receive accordingly. Yet only time will tell whether this element is deemed by the majority as impactful. And what about the nature of other forms of scholarship. It seems outside our academic niche social media is here to stay and discussing with many of my non clinical friends across the fields of business or the arts they find it somewhat surprising that academia in general has not as yet become accustomed to this. Even though I am deemed a digital native having been born in the 80’s I admit to not being a Twitter or Facebook user. Viewing their impact seems to highlight that their work is viewed and followed by people in their thousands.

For me the whole concept is confusing. I guess if I can help to educate and train even just a handful of learners to be more knowledgeable or skilful then that is my personal impact factor. So over to you? What are your thoughts on the notion of impact factor or impact in general in medical education?

Take Home Messages

Notes On Contributors

Dr Neel Sharma graduated from the University of Manchester and is currently based at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center, New York, USA





There are no conflicts of interest.
This has been published under Creative Commons "CC BY-SA 4.0" (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)


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Ken Masters - (14/03/2019) Panel Member Icon
The author raises an important issue that, I am sure, bothers many researchers. It is especially troubling when the conversation ends with: “Well, we know it’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing we have.” This appears to be a terrible reason for retaining something as the only measure.

As the author further notes, the impact factor is manipulated (one method, not listed by the author, is the use of editorials that refer to several papers in the issue, thereby giving those papers citation scores of 1 the moment they are published.) In addition, some papers are referenced because they are appalling examples of errors or are highly problematic papers. Their impact factor is inversely proportional to the value of their contribution.

The real progress, however, is to find the solution. Although the author does give some insight into possibilities, it would have been useful if he could have shed a little more light on how these would work, and in a way that these numbers could not also be gamed.
Richard Hays - (27/11/2016) Panel Member Icon
The author makes some good points in this letter. Academic careers are often built on high status grants and publications in high impact factor journals in a very competitive world. The latter is best achieved through multi-institutional, multi-author projects that address the big questions in advancing medical practice. Most academics in medical education just do not play in this world, preferring the much less competitive and more nurturing environment in which they work. They publish where they see an interested readership. Two things come to mind here. The first is that citations are increasingly recognised as only one measure of impact, with views and downloads emerging as important. I suspect this will become more evident in time. The second is that perhaps we need to learn a little from that more competitive world of academic medical science, by researching the big questions in medical education across disciplines, institutions and nations. While much is context-bound, there is a lot to be learned from research that provides solid theoretical bases and evidence across different contexts. Meanwhile, I am comfortable with my career, which has relied as much on my medical education scholarship as the health services research. Neither will win fame or glory, but I feel that quality matters and believe that academic medicine is progressing.