Journal impact factors have become an important criterion to judge the quality of scientific publications over the years, influencing the evaluation of institutions and individual researchers worldwide. However, they are also subject to a number of criticisms.
Here we point out that the calculation of a journal’s impact factor is mainly based on the date of publication of its articles in print form, despite the fact that most journals now make their articles available online before that date.
We analyze 61 neuroscience journals and show that delays between online and print publication of articles increased steadily over the last decade. Importantly, such a practice varies widely among journals, as some of them have no delays, while for others this period is longer than a year.
Using a modified impact factor based on online rather than print publication dates, we demonstrate that online-to-print delays can artificially raise a journal’s impact factor, and that this inflation is greater for longer publication lags.
We also show that correcting the effect of publication delay on impact factors changes journal rankings based on this metric.
We thus suggest that indexing of articles in citation databases and calculation of citation metrics should be based on the date of an article’s online appearance, rather than on that of its publication in print.