Can journals game the impact factor system?

The Wall Street Journal has an article -- unfortunately behind their subscription paywall -- about how scientific journals appear to be attempting to game the impact factor system which claims to offer an unbiased rating of a journal's influence. The article describes John B. West's experience in publishing a paper:

After he submitted a paper on the design of the human lung to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, an editor emailed him that the paper was basically fine. There was just one thing: Dr. West should cite more studies that had appeared in the respiratory journal.

You see, the more studies that cite a particular journal, the higher its impact factor. Higher impact factors lead to more subscriptions, which means more money for the publishers.

The article cites a number of ways journals appear to be gaming the system: blanket requests for more citations, accepting more review articles (with correspondingly more citations) as opposed to original research, and not citing competing journals.

Of course the editors and publishers of these journals vigorously deny any impropriety. The editor of the Journal of Telemedicine and and Telecare has this to say: "I can state unequivocally that we do not attempt to manipulate the JTT's impact factor. For a start, I wouldn't know how to."

Thomson Scientific, who publishes the impact factor ratings, says it drops journals from the ranking if they abusively self-cite, so it does appear that the publishers are aware of the potential for abuse.

I don't have any insider information about the phenomenon, but my guess is this: any attempts to manipulate the ratings are likely going to be small potatoes, similar to attempts to inflate your Google PageRank. Just as truly popular web sites quickly rise to the top of Google rankings, if an article is really noticed, the number of cites will quickly dwarf the cites from any self-promoters.

update: I may have found a way around the WSJ's paywall. Try this link. Can someone without a subscription to WSJ let me know if this works?

(via if:book)


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Obviously this is not a threat to the huge journals. It is definitely a threat to the small ones. A small honest journal will be at a huge disadvantage relative to a small cheating journal. But then, this is nothing new in the corrupt academic environment of author lists that include everybody and their mothers, pointless citations of friends' papers and other such nonsense. Every human group with rules will have cheaters.

Don't forget about authors trying to cite their own work over and over.