La Life of the labs. It’s an earthquake in the world of scientific publishing. The impact factor (IF) of certain medical or scientific journals, an indicator that measures their visibility, has made an unprecedented jump, in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus the British medical weekly The Lancet, rose from 79 in 2020 to 202 in 2021, in the latest ranking carried out by the company Clarivate Analytics on more than 12,000 reviews, published on June 29. The Lancet even dethroned, for the first time since 1975 – the year this indicator was introduced – its American rival: the New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM], whose impact factor has “only” increased from 91 to 176.
Calculated by dividing the number of citations of a journal’s articles over the past two years by the number of citable articles published by it over the same two years, the impact factor theoretically makes it possible to estimate the notoriety of ‘newspaper. However, it is increasingly criticized, and a growing number of organizations and universities tend to abandon it to assess scientists.
A decline that Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, and scientific editor of the group of journals of the same name (Lancet Respiratory Medicine, Lancet Psychiatry… ) many of which also saw their FI soar in 2021. “We know that scientific institutions in some countries, and even governments, follow impact factor ripples with astonishing care and attention”says Richard Horton on the site of Elsevier, which owns the Lancet Group, in an article in response to the announcement of the 2021 vintage. “Editors oscillate between attachment and animosity towards the IF assigned to their journal”but, “Whether we like it or not, this number matters”, he continues.
A bubble linked to the pandemic
For Richard Horton, the substantial increases in IFs for 2021 for the journals in his group are clearly due to Covid-19. The Lancet was thus, he quotes, the first newspaper to publish an article on the epidemic in Wuhan, China, in January 2020; also the first to give the results of a randomized clinical trial with an anti-Covid vaccine. Richard Horton underlines the relationship of trust built with Chinese scientists, which may have encouraged them, at the time of the pandemic, to choose the British journal to disseminate their work. The editor of the Lancet however, remains more discreet about an article published in its review on May 22, 2020 (suggesting that hydroxychloroquine alone or combined with an antibiotic increased mortality and cardiac complications in people hospitalized with Covid-19), cited hundreds of times and retracted less than two weeks later. Almost simultaneously, the NEJM had withdrawn an article with the same main author, Sapan Desai, and using data from the same American company, Surgisphere.
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