Despite several limitations, impact factors — produced by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) — remain the most widely used, globally acceptable tools to evaluate the quality of journals and research publications. We have looked at the impact factors of Indian journals and find that, for 1999, only 47 journals figured in the ISI's list, all with impact factors of less than 0.6. Of the 5,500 journals from other countries in the ISI's list, 2,286 have impact factors greater than one, including 44 with impact factors greater than 10 and 20 with impact factors greater than 17.
For a country with more than a billion people, a large infrastructure for science and technology, and plenty of scientists, this picture of journal quality is dismal.
Is the coverage of journals for developing countries by the Science Citation Index (SCI) adequate? Is the ISI's monopoly contributing to the problem by restricting coverage or introducing an regional bias, for example between developed and developing countries? The criteria for inclusion in SCI are not known. We have made enquiries to the Indian National Scientific Documentation Centre (INSDOC), to the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, to editors of prominent biomedical Indian journals and to other organizations. These have revealed that no Indian agency is involved in analysing these issues at present, though INSDOC has plans to do so.
The response to the questionnaire we sent to these organizations and journals (with a few exceptions, including INSDOC and the Indian Journal of Medical Research) was poor, indicating indifference. Most researchers publish their high-quality research in foreign journals with high impact factors, which exacerbates the problem. But they cannot be blamed for this. Administrators use impact factors in making assessments for promotion, recognition, honours and awards. Most official forms for job or grant applications have separate columns for the number of papers published in national and in international journals. An outstanding piece of research published in a less well-known journal might go unnoticed, depriving the author of due recognition.
Is the quality of our publications as poor as it seems? Are impact factors giving a true picture? The reasons for the situation in India must be properly investigated and remedial measures sought. If scientists, journal editors and learned societies take the initiative in calling for such investigation, this objective will be achieved more quickly.