The impact factor, often abbreviated IF, is a measure reflecting the average number of citations to recent articles published in science and social science journals. It is was first devised by Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), and is now frequently used as a proxy for the relative importance of a journal within its field, with journals with higher impact factors deemed to be more important than those with lower ones (Source: Wikipedia).
Publication in journals with a high impact factor is regarded as an indication of the quality of the research published and, by implication, the quality of its authors. Not surprisingly, publishing in highly ranked journals is an aspiration for most scientists and often plays an important role in one’s own career prospects and progression. Yet, as more and more researchers aspire to publish in top rated journals, the competition gets tougher and the success rate far lower than publishing on low-impact journals. So, how to achieve a much sought-after high-impact publication?
Of course, to deserve publication in highly ranked journals your research has to be outstanding. However, this is not enough! Another critical ingredient is your ability to communicate the importance of your results in an effective and engaging way. So, an interesting question is: Should your writing style be any different from that used for standard publications? The answer is generally yes. Here are three good reasons why.
By definition, high-impact factor journals are widely read. This means that your readership will in general be less specialised and generally less informed on the key open problems in your field. Most likely, they will also be less interested about the exact details of your study, but they will certainly be interested in the implications of your findings both in your own field and in other, related ones. Opening and closing paragraphs are thus of utmost importance. Here, you should tell your reader what is hot in your field, why it matters, and where the current problems are. You then need to state very clearly the major advances that your research has led to. It is important, however, to avoid jargon and to make sure that the language you use is appropriate to practitioners in your field (e.g. physicists) but not necessarily experts in your specific area (e.g. nuclear physicists). In fact, it may help to keep in mind that even your reviewers may not be experts in your field and it is up to you to persuade them of the excellence of your research. Also, if you are submitting to journals such as Physical Review Letters, Physics Letters B, or a Rapid Communication to Physical Review C, you will be required to include justification as to why publication in any of these journals should be warranted.
Space is strictly limited in high-impact journals. For example, the total length of a Letter to the Physical Review journal should not exceed 4 journal pages. You do not have the luxury of explaining at length what has been done and why, but rather need to use words sparingly and make sure they are up to the point. Once you are happy with the content of your manuscript, spend an appropriate amount of time editing it carefully. First of all focus on clarity. Make sure every sentence conveys exactly the meaning you intend. Then, once clarity has been achieved, revise your draft once again to polish the style. Remove any unnecessary word and look for ways to further simplify your sentences. Remember that every word counts and you do not want to risk a rejection just because you could not be bothered to keep your manuscript within the prescribed length.
One of the main differences between high- and low-impact journals is the level of detail found in their articles. Clearly, there should be enough to persuade readers that the methods and procedures used were fit for purpose. Likewise, data analysis and results should be presented in a way that shows carefulness, rigour, and accuracy. However, it is unlikely that you will have to enter in any great detail as to each step of your data analysis and often presenting its starting point and end result will be enough. In some cases, it may be appropriate to submit supplemental material. For example, there may be some text, tables or figures which are of value, but of too limited reader interest to warrant the number of pages required to publish in full in the journal. If the article is published, such material can be made available online through links from the published article.
In summary, writing for a high-impact journal can, and will, require additional effort on your part – as if carrying out outstanding research was not enough! :). However, the dividends it pays are normally worth the hassle. If you are a novice to such publications, some simple advice can make a huge difference. Here is what you can do to help you in the writing process:
- make sure your proposed article matches the journal’s scope
- read carefully the Guidelines for Authors provided by the Journal
- familiarise yourself with the specific requirements as to length, formatting, referencing, etc., and follow them scrupolously
- try to find a colleague who has published in, or has been a reviewer for, your targeted journal. Their experience may prove invaluable in assisting you shape your article
- ask colleagues to comment on drafts of your work.
- read plenty of articles from the journal you intend to publish in and learn from other people’s style (see my previous blog post on how to become a better writer)
PS. Do you know the impact factors of your favourite journal(s)? Here are the IFs for some of the main journals in Physics, according to the Journal Citation Reports 2011 ISI Web of Knowledge (Thomson Reuters)
Reviews on Modern Physics 43.933
Physics Reports 20.394
Nature Physics 18.967
Reports on Progress in Physics 14.720
Physical Review Letters 7.370
Physics Today 5.648
Journal Physics G 4.178
Physics Letters B 3.955
Physical Review C 3.308
European Physical Journal A 2.190
By comparison, two of the most popular scientific journals, Nature and Science, score at 36.280 and 31.201, respectively.
- Understanding the Journal Impact Factor – Part One (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- Impact factors and where to publish (sociobiology.wordpress.com)