Peer-reviewed publishing is the bread and butter of today’s academia. When governments allocate finance to university departments, one key criterion is usually the publication output of the department’s researchers. And so academics are valued according to how long and how influential their publication lists are.
The following paragraphs will briefly introduce you to the world of academic publishing.
What exactly is the peer-review process? Academic journals don’t just publish anything that is offered to them. Instead, they ask the experts in the particular field to have a look at the paper. Each reviewer creates a report telling the editors if any information is incorrect, the good and the weak points of the paper, and whether the paper is worth publishing.
Of course, there are many journals in many scientific fields. So, scientists need tools to help them find relevant information and assess how important it is.
Academic publications are listed in databases. The output of a researcher is summed up by a citation index. And the importance of academic journals is measured by an impact factor. Let us have a look at these in detail.
If you are looking for articles on a particular topic or for authors and their work, one of the best starting points would be the Web of Knowledge. This is a database of scientific databases (including Web of Science, Zoological Record and others). It is owned by the information giant ThomsonReuters (previously it was independent and known as ISI Web of Knowledge). Web of Knowledge also includes Current Contents, which is an alert service listing very recent publications. To access the information in the databases of the Web of Knowledge, you need a subscription.
Another large database is Scopus. It belongs to Elsevier, a leading publisher of scientific journals (its portfolio includes The Lancet, the prestigious journal for biomedical sciences). Just like the Web of Knowledge, Scopus is a paid service.
The importance of an academic journal is measured by the impact factor. This sums up how often the articles of that journal are cited elsewhere. It was first developed as part of the Science Citation Index (SCI).
Impact factors should not be compared across disciplines, as in some disciplines cross-citation is much more frequent than in others. For example, in physics or biology, an important discovery will be cited in many other papers. In contrast, politics or statistical science are much less hierarchically organized. Papers are much less cross-cited and journals in these disciplines have a generally lower impact factor number.
If you want to track articles published on a particular topic or see how a particular author is cited, you look at a citation index. The Science Citation Index (SCI) is one of the most widely recognized services that provide publication records. Two other widely used ones are the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI). All three mentioned are also part of the Web of Knowledge system.
A citation index for a particular author is a form of bibliometric – a way of measuring scientific output. The traditional citation indexes have often been criticized as inadequate. Various alternative methods are now in use, for example the h-index or the Eigenfactor.