I recently read this FAQ that explains a bit about impact factors. After reading, I was curious... what would be some reasons why researchers would use papers from a low-impact factor journal, say, a journal with IF = 1?

Wouldn't all researchers concentrate their efforts on starting their literature search from the highest impact factor journals, and then develop their new work on this basis? That seems logical to me and also most beneficial to a researcher's career in academia.

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    More seriously, please expand your question as it is currently not very clear. What do you mean by "use"? Build upon and cite? Read? Read first, before reading others? "and then develop their new work on this basis" - what makes you think the findings that the researcher wants to build upon have been published in a high-IF journal? What if a researcher works on a project X that relies on findings Y, and Y can only be found in a low-IF journal? "most beneficial to a researcher's career in academia" - why do you think that is? – O. R. Mapper Jul 3 '17 at 10:52
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    I think you have a very poor idea about how research ideally should work. It is not just ad hoc, random redressing and fiddling with the latest results published in Nature, but most researchers actually have an established (and preferably somewhat new) direction of research of their own. – Greg Jul 3 '17 at 13:56
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    Two reasons come to mind. A) They're good papers. B) They are relevant to his research. (?) – xDaizu Jul 4 '17 at 8:35
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    The question is flawed. IF is a journal-level metric, not an article-level metric. Even as a metric for journals, it has come under serious criticism, as a simple Google search will show. E.g.: editage.com/insights/… – cfh Jul 4 '17 at 15:02
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    When you're doing a literature search, do you even know what journals particular papers are published in, let alone the impact factor of the journals? I find papers with online searches, skim them to see if they're relevant, and only when I decide to cite them do I look at the journal - and that only long enough to create a BibTex entry. And often the entry will be provided, so I don't even look. – jamesqf Jul 5 '17 at 5:03
up vote 36 down vote accepted

The question is unclear, but let me try to answer anyway.

You assume that for any given field of science, there exist journals with high impact factors. This ignores the specifics of individual fields. In very basic sciences, impact factors are usually high, because many researchers from other fields will use the findings in their own for. For example a researcher from the field of neurology will be cited from the people from neurology, psychology, psychiatric medicine, artificial intelligence, computer science.

On the other hand, more niche the field becomes, smaller is the pool of the scientists that could use the results. While a computer scientist may cite the paper from neurology to reference certain brain structure that inspired his algorithm or massive processing cluster architecture, there is basically no way that the neurology scientist would cite the aforementioned computer scientist.

That's why there are huge differences among fields regarding the impact factor of the top journals in the category.

Does this mean that the paper on some novel computing architecture is less valuable? Certainly not. While very few computer engineers working in R&D of new commercial computer systems will be interested in neurology, quite a few of them will read the paper on novel, more efficient architecture of massive computer clustering.

However, since they are end-users, their reads will not transform in citations, while significant proportion people that read advanced neurology paper will publish papers on their own and perhaps eventually cite it somewhere (because they are scientists, in that essence, not end users).

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    First thing I thought: IF1 isn't that bad! :) – Fábio Dias Jul 3 '17 at 17:49
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    "In very basic sciences, impact factors are usually high" - Well, I would guess pure mathematics is just as basic as a field can be, and math journals have low IF (1 is actually pretty high, none raising above 5 last time I checked). Maybe the point being that math result are not used by other fields in the two years after publication (but rather, in the next century or so). – Benoît Kloeckner Jul 4 '17 at 14:43
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    @BenoîtKloeckner Depends on the definition of "basic". In this case, I think it is meant to apply to those areas which tend to have significant, multi-faceted, and immediate applications in industry and commerce (and the military, probably). Mathematics is basic in the "fundamental framework that all science is executed within" sort of sense, but rarely sees immediate use. As you say, it usually takes more than two years to synthesize a mathematical result well enough produce publishable new results, and most results only lend to a small number of potential new research vectors at the time. – zibadawa timmy Jul 5 '17 at 6:30
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    @arboviral: I do not think I have ever knowingly encountered a publication in Nature or Science that was in any way relevant for my area of applied CS. Some interdisciplinary niche projects aside, I'd claim that both Nature and Science are not a part of the reasonably eligible publication venues within my field. – O. R. Mapper Jul 5 '17 at 9:40
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    @arboviral What O.R.Mapper said, but replace "applied CS" with "theoretical CS". – JeffE Jul 5 '17 at 13:04

What would be some reasons why researchers would use papers from a low-impact factor journal, say, a journal with IF = 1?

Researchers use papers that are relevant to their research, regardless of where they've been published. Being published in a less prestigious journal doesn't mean the result is less true - it usually means the paper is seen as less significant, usually because the authors/referees/editors think fewer people will be interested in the result.

But sometimes those people are wrong, and a paper is more significant than it appeared, and sometimes the paper may be obscure but it has exactly the thing you need for the work you're doing.

(Also, IF values vary dramatically by field. The top journals in my subfield have impact factors between 0.6 and 0.7, so an impact factor of 1 doesn't sound low-impact to me at all.)

Wouldn't all researchers concentrate their efforts on starting their literature search from the highest impact factor journals, and then develop their new work on this basis? That seems logical to me and also most beneficial to a researcher's career in academia.

No, they wouldn't. Indeed, if everyone else were doing that, a researcher could get a big advantage by being the only person mining paper published in low impact-factor journals for ideas that other people were overlooking. In my experiences, researchers skim pretty broadly, looking for papers that might suggest new ideas or ways to advance their work, and I've never heard of anyone restricting their reading to the journals with higher impact factors.

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    +1 for "Indeed, if everyone else were doing that, a researcher could get a big advantage by being the only person mining paper published in low impact-factor journals for ideas that other people were overlooking." I was thinking along the same lines. Indeed, I sometimes wonder why there seems (in this group especially) so much emphasis on working on the hottest new fad, things that all the big-shots are working on. It seems to me that average ability researchers would have better success looking for small gems slightly away from where the giants of the field are strip-mining. – Dave L Renfro Jul 3 '17 at 18:43
  • Relevant article: linkedin.com/pulse/… – VonBeche Jul 3 '17 at 19:09
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    I know of someone who built significant work using a result from the diploma thesis of someone who had not pursued an academic career. The thesis had to be obtained from the library of the university that had awarded the diploma degree. – Carsten S Jul 4 '17 at 8:43
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    @DaveLRenfro The most likely explanation for that is the most likely explanation for most things: money. Certain funding agencies want to fund "the next big thing" and to be part of getting big breakthroughs out into society. The average person likes to hear about medical breakthroughs that fix current problems, and not so much about how a treatment for something that's been "not a big deal" for a long time has been improved, for example. Who really cares about polio? Fix zika! – zibadawa timmy Jul 5 '17 at 6:38

Wouldn't all researchers concentrate their efforts on starting their literature search from the highest impact factor journals, and then develop their new work on this basis?

No. My literature searches start at DuckDuckGo, Google, Google Scholar and maybe my institution's library search. I don't even know the impact factors of the venues of the papers I end up reading.

If the papers (or books, or blog posts, or Stack Exchange Q&A) I find are relevant, I will read them, regardless of impact factor.

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    +1 Let me go a bit beyond "I don't even know the impact factors of the venues of the papers I end up reading." I don't know the impact factors of any journals, and I don't see any reason to learn any impact factors. I have a general idea of which journals are important in my field, and that idea might or might not agree with impact factors. I also have a general idea of which researchers are doing important work that I should read regardless of where (or even whether) it's published. Impact factors are simply irrelevant for me. – Andreas Blass Jul 5 '17 at 3:02
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    @AndreasBlass ... agreed. I'm in math, I did not know anything about impact factors until I was on a college-wide promotion and tenure committee. Then we in math had to somehow find the impact factors to add to the papers in the promotion dossiers, since the other departments thought they were relevant. – GEdgar Jul 5 '17 at 13:51

This question is very open and will probably generate a lot of answers. Here's two important reasons I see:

  • The impact factor of a journal does not indicate the quality of an individual article. I have seen awesome articles in poorly-known journals. As well as articles with serious flaws in high-impact journals.
  • Impact factors varies with field: some smaller fields have lower publication rates, thus lower impact factors when compared to other fields In ecology, for example, an impact factor of 2 is fine (at least from my experience). Above 3, you have a very good journal. I'm pretty sure this would be considered low for a medicine journal...
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    Impact factor being a dimensionless ratio, it is not at all evident that smaller fields should have lower IF journals. For a field that is not cited by other fields, average IF is equal to the average number of one-to-two-years-old cited papers in the field (otherwise it is above that). In small fields researchers might cite slightly less, but since there is only so much one can read and cite, this effect probably only influence very small, closed subfields. The habits of citations are certainly a much greater factor than field size to explain the variations in average IF. – Benoît Kloeckner Jul 4 '17 at 14:49
  • @BenoîtKloeckner well I though this was well documented. But I do not have the time right now to find references for this... will do if I can later – Emilie Jul 4 '17 at 15:17

Because if they didn't, nobody would've heard of the Krebs cycle yet, one of the most important discoveries in biochemistry. It was famously rejected from Nature, and instead published in an obscure little Dutch journal called Enzymologia. Luckily, the Nobel Prize committee didn't care about impact factor ;-)

In addition to the excellent points made in the prior answers, consider the issue of originality as a requirement for article acceptance.

A professor who selects based on relevance etc. will know if a line of research has already been covered by articles in low impact journals, and avoid duplicating what has already been published. A professor who only reads articles in high impact journals could waste a lot of time duplicating prior research, and getting articles rejected for lack of originality.

I understand that you meant "Why would a researcher read papers from low-impact journals?"

In many research areas, articles are communicated (and read) well before they are published, for example by means of preprint servers such as arXiv. In this case, the reputation of the journal to which a certain article has been submitted/accepted can be used as some simple indicator for the quality of the research.

Since impact factor is essentially an attempt to measure journal reputation, this implies that articles submitted/accepted for low-impact-factor journals tend to be regarded less.

However, IMHO few researchers explicitly use impact factor to select their reading list, rather they judge from several factors, journal reputation being only one (others are the reputation of the authors, as well as the interest generated from reading the title and abstract).

Note also that, in particular for interdisciplinary journals such as Nature and Science, impact factor may not correlate with good quality articles. This is because these journals tend to select not on quality alone, but also on potential impact. Now, unfortunately, a wrong/marginal result can have a huge impact, since if it were true that would have dramatic consequences (IMHO, a substantial fraction of articles in aforementioned journals fall into this category).

What you are proposing here is a circular self-sustaining system where the impact factor of a journal could never increase because no one would cite it. This, coupled with the occasional digging for hidden and/or forgotten gems of research means that there is good reason to use those resources too.

And let us not forget: Impact factor says very little about both validity and value of the contained work. Not directly, anyway.

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