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Suppression as a form of liberation?

July 3rd, 2020 | Posted by rmounce in Research Assessment

On Monday 29th June 2020, I learned from Retraction Watch that Clarivate, the for-profit proprietor of Journal Impact Factor ™ has newly “suppressed” 33 journals from their indexing service. The immediate consequence of this “suppression” is that these 33 journals do not get assigned an official Clarivate Journal Impact Factor ™ . Clarivate justify this action on the basis of “anomalous citation patterns” but without much further detail given for each of the journals other than the overall “% Self-cites” of the journal, and the effect of those self-cites on Clarivate’s citation-based ranking of journals (% Distortion of category rank).

Amongst the 33 journals, I spotted not one but two systematics journals that I know very well:

I have read, cited, and analysed (textmining and image analysis) articles from both of these journals extensively. Chapter 6 of my PhD thesis mined over 12,000 Zootaxa articles looking for phylogenetic data. In a more recent work published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), I mined over 5,800 IJSEM articles for phylogenetic tree data. Of relevance, I should also say I was a council member of the Systematics Association for many years.

Given the experiences listed above, I am therefore very well placed to say that what Clarivate has done to these two systematics journals is utter brainless idiocy.

The reason why Zootaxa articles cite quite a high proportion of other Zootaxa articles is obvious (“self-citation” at the journal-level from Clarivate’s point-of-view) to anyone in the discipline. Zootaxa is an important ‘megajournal’ for the zoological systematics community. According to lens.org data Zootaxa published over 5,000 items (articles and monographs) between 2018 and 2019. Clarivate’s own records from another one of their proprietary analytics services called ‘Zoological Record‘ indicate that 26.57% of all new zoological taxa are published in Zootaxa. For many decades descriptive taxonomy has been pushed-out of for-profit journals. Zootaxa is a vital refugia for sound science in a poorly funded discipline.

The case for legitimate ‘high’ journal-level self-citation at International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM) is even clearer and easier to explain. The International Code of Nomenclature of Prokaryotes (ICNP) requires that all new bacteria names are published in IJSEM and nowhere else (a very sensible idea which the bacteriology community should be commended for). Hence a lot of the systematic and evolutionary microbiology articles in IJSEM will cite prior IJSEM articles.

Wayne Maddison has commented on Twitter that the hardest hit researchers by this action might be those in developing countries. I agree. The problem here is that many institutions and research funders idiotically use the Journal Impact Factor ™ to assess the quality of an individual’s research output. In some regimes, if a researcher publishes a paper in a journal that has a Journal Impact Factor ™ then it ‘counts’, whereas if a researcher publishes a paper in a journal that has not been given an official Journal Impact Factor ™ by Clarivate then that paper may not ‘count’ towards the assessment of that researcher.

The zoology section of the Chilean Society of Biology has already petitioned Clarivate to unsuppress Zootaxa, to give it back its Journal Impact Factor ™ . I understand why they would do this but I would actually call for something quite different and more far-reaching.

I would encourage all systematists, taxonomists, zoologists, microbiologists, and biologists in general to see the real problem here: Clarivate, a for-profit analytics company, should never be so relied-upon by research evaluation committees to arbitrarily decide the value of a research output. Especially given that the Journal Impact Factor ™ is untransparent, irreproducible, and fundamentally statistically illiterate.

Thus to bring us back to my title. I wonder if Clarivate’s wacky “suppression” might actually be a pathway to liberation from the inappropriate stupidity of using Journal Impact Factor ™ to evaluate individual research outputs. Given we have all now witnessed just how brainless some of Clarivate’s decision making is, I would ask Clarivate to please “suppress” all journals thereby removing the harmful stupidity of Journal Impact Factor ™ from the lives of researchers.