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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 22, 2006

To The Third Darn Decimal Place

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Posted by Derek

I had a promotional e-mail from the scientific publishing giant Elsevier the other day. The latest calculated impact factors for journals have been released, so it's time, naturally, for them to brag about how things are going.

The message goes on, in large type, about "Consistently Increasing Impact Factors!". I guess that it's nice to know, for example, that Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters has moved up from 2.333 to 2.478. Hey, at that rate, they'll be over 3.0 by the 2010s! O, brave new world that has such journals in it! Imagine being able to unload your failed med-chem projects in a journal with such an impressive impact factor - I'd encourage you to start making plans on how you'll spend the bonus and promotion money.

Even by these (debased) standards, some of the hype seems a bit. . .forced. Bioorganic Chemistry, for example, is touted as moving up from 1.240 to 1.565 (translation: unimpressive to unimpressive, even if you believe in impac factors). Those numbers make me think that I still have several years of lead time before I'm strongly motivated to look at the journal.

But my favorite blurb is this one: "Heterocycles: WAS 1.064. NOW 1.070". Well, all right, then, spread the news! The impact factor for Heterocycles has moved up in the third decimal place! What, did three more people cite papers from it in 2005? Look, Elsevier knows the truth as well as anyone else: Heterocycles is just not a good journal. But then, it never has been. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it came directly from Japan on expensive glossy paper stock, which along with the sleek black cover made a distinctly weird impression on those infrequent occasions when you actually looked inside a copy. The paper completely outclassed that stuff that was printed on it. Most of the articles could have been titled "Not Particularly Surprising Rearrangements of Bicyclic Imidazo Compounds That No One Cares About". I have seen no evidence that makes me think that the situation has improved.

Actually, my favorite part of the e-mail is what it doesn't mention. You know, when you think about it, Elsevier publishes some other chemistry journals, too. . .where, for instance, is Tetrahedron Letters? You don't suppose they'd miss an opportunity to highlight that one, do you, assuming that there was anything to highlight?

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. ZAL on June 23, 2006 2:35 AM writes...

I agree that the claim of "Consistently Increasing Impact Factors!" sounds ridicolous, but...
the impact factor doesn`t tell the whole story! The journals of the Tetrahedron family, Synthesis, Synlett etc. may not have a very impressive IF, but as an organic chemist I think one should try to check them regoularly...after all, sometimes they can be very useful! OK, sometimes thay also made me waste time and material due to some unreproducible protocol....
Moreover, badly written or questionable papers can be found also in JACS or ACIE, as we have recently witnessed!

BTW, does someone have an explanation why Adv. Synth. Catal. has a higher IF than Org. Lett.? that sounds impossible! Maybe because IFs have no meaning at all?

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2. PharmaChemist on June 23, 2006 7:47 AM writes...

Anybody know how to find a list of impact factors?

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3. RKN on June 23, 2006 9:35 AM writes...

Anybody know how to find a list of impact factors?

Try here:

I was suprised how difficult it was to find this using a search engine. The top hits of which point you to ISI, but it beats me how to you get to the IFs once at that site.

What do people think about the open source (OS) movement for scientific publication? I realize it takes money to print journals, and typically that money comes from subscribers. Fair enough. But given the success of the OS movement in software, I'm wondering if it might translate to scientific publication as well.

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4. MolecularGeek on June 23, 2006 10:13 AM writes...

I didn't have a chance to look for the actual discipline-specific lists, but the factors are compiled by ISI/Thomson and if you do a search from, you will be able to find them. I'm on a machine at a site with a subscription, so I can't be sure that the pages there aren't restricted, but that would be my first stop to look into it.

I like several crystals of sodium chloride with my consideration of impact factors myself. How many articles/notes/letters are published in Adv. Synth, Catal. each year as opposed to Org. Lett.? If I understand the rating process correctly, it will be much easier for one seminal article on a new catalyst in the former that is heavily cited to increase the impact factor than a similarly important paper about a novel transformation method in the latter. Furthermore, since papers about new reactions that show up in places like Org. Lett. are more likely to cite papers about underlying methods like novel catalysts that would be published in journals like Adv. Synth. Catal., there's something of a pyramid effect, In theory, the compilers are normalizing for this. I doubt that you can completely normalize away these effects, as they may be structural to the scientific process.

As for me, I occasionally check the impact factor list just to see what they think are the important journals in med chem. If something that I don't normally follow makes a real jump (certainly more than .004), I will probably start skimming the table of contents for the next few issues just to make sure that I am not missing anything earth-shaking, but I certainly don't become a slave to their numbers.


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5. JSinger on June 23, 2006 11:13 AM writes...

Are impact factors normalized or does the whole distribution of them increase as the scientific world grows?

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6. JSinger on June 23, 2006 11:13 AM writes...

Are impact factors normalized or does the whole distribution of them increase as the scientific world grows?

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7. Jose on June 23, 2006 11:13 AM writes...

One note comes to mind- J Heterocyclic Chem at least has the decency to put all the cycles on the cover, allowing for a quick perusal and/or dismissal. Heterocycles, on the other hand, forces you to wade through evertyhing to see a glimmer of useful chemistry....!

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8. Jose on June 23, 2006 11:13 AM writes...

One note comes to mind- J Heterocyclic Chem at least has the decency to put all the cycles on the cover, allowing for a quick perusal and/or dismissal. Heterocycles, on the other hand, forces you to wade through evertyhing to see a glimmer of useful chemistry....!

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9. milo on June 23, 2006 11:49 AM writes...


I laughed out loud at this post, this one one definitely one of your swarmier ones! Sounds like that marketing email hit a nerve.

There have been many instances in my own research where I was able to find a useful prep from TL, Chem Commun, Syn Lett etc... I have even found useful information for my research from BMCL (even without the experimental details).

While I don't read them cover to cover, they are definitely on my "graphical contents to check out" list.

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10. secret milkshake on June 23, 2006 12:33 PM writes...

I just reconstructed an experimental procedure for a building block that I needed - the scheme of prep was published in Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett. (and nowhere else). The autors were decent enough to mention all solvents and react. temperatures - but I cursed them nevertheless because it took me probably twice as long than if I had the actual procedure.

BMCL is on my regular read list but it sure has a load of crap in it. (From lesser-know journals, Process Research R & D is my favorite - beautiful and useful procedures most of the time.)

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11. Cryptic Ned on June 23, 2006 7:08 PM writes...

One note comes to mind- J Heterocyclic Chem at least has the decency to put all the cycles on the cover, allowing for a quick perusal and/or dismissal.

That's also true of the Journal of Natural Products...or they are all on its web table of contents, at least.

BTW, is the Journal of Natural Products an utter waste of time? I'm not a chemist, I don't know. It's certainly a lot more enjoyable to look at its table of contents than any other journals, and try to pronounce the half-indigenous-botany-half-chemistry words.

Euphoportlandols, cyanthiwigin B, sapinmusaponins, oblongifolins, withanolides, kalanchosine dimalate, neocimicigenosides, cycloleonuripeptides, psammaplin A, daphniyunnines, diplobifuranylones, sundaicumones, bauhiniastatins, isoandrographolide, daphmanidins, (+)-N-deoxymilitarinone A, atroviolacegenin, junceellolides, chaetoglobosin U, wortmannilactones, hurghadolide A and swinholide A are all to be found in 2006 editions of J. Nat. Prod

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12. Atompusher on June 23, 2006 7:28 PM writes...

The impact factor/subscription price would be an interesting metric to consider. A few years ago, the UC system was considering a boycott of all Elsevier journals due to their exorbitant pricing.

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13. Jonathan Gitlin on June 23, 2006 9:42 PM writes...

Google has used it's clever algorithms to come up with a revised and more accurate version of impact factors - you can read more at Nobel Intent. It doesn't just take into account how often a paper is cited, but also who cites it.

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14. Brooks Moses on June 25, 2006 1:09 AM writes...

RKN: Arguably, it's already how journal publication has been working since time immemorial, or at least the past century or so. In open source software, the people who have a stake in the results (the programmers) work in return for getting better results, and the hardware to run it on and the datacenter to store it in are paid in real money. In journal publication, many of the editorial positions are volunteer or nearly so, and the reviewing is virtually all volunteer, while the printers and the organizations that handle the infrastructure to convert the editorial output into printed and web-hosted product are paid. It's obviously not the only way to draw the lines in the analogy, but I think it's a reasonable one.

Thus, I don't think that one can necessarily expect the success of open source software to be matched in open-access scientific publishing. Open source software lives on a backbone of corporate infrastructure support (e.g., SourceForge), and it's not clear to me whether a similar backbone in scientific publishing is viable and whether the pockets that would support it are deep enough.

Also, on a deeper level, I honestly don't think the move towards author-pays rather than reader-pays (which is what much of the open access movement seems to amount to) is really all that directly parallel to the open source movement. It's just a shift in who pays the publisher, which seems more a matter of considering a different set of people to be the customers rather than a deep change in the basic customer-publisher relationship. Not to say that that doesn't shake things up; it's just a very different sort of shakeup.

Jonathan: That's one of those things that seems so, so utterly predictable in retrospect. Of course Google would do that -- Pagerank is a hammer, and they're trying it on everything that bears even a passing resemblance to a nail. This does seem like a case where it's likely to be useful if applied thoughtfully, though.

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15. John Thacker on June 26, 2006 6:15 PM writes...

As a mathematician and Cornellian, I have to point out that any discussion of open-source type scientific publishing has to mention the arxiv.

A lot of physics, math, and computational biology goes in there these days.

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