Impact factor

The growing divide between higher and low impact scientific journals

Ten years ago the Public Library of Science started one big lower impact and a series of smaller higher impact journals. Over the years these publication outlets diverged. The growing divide between standard and top journals might mirror wider trends in scholarly publishing.

There are roughly two kinds of journals in the Public Library of Science (PLoS): low impact (IF = 3.06) and higher impact (3.9 < IF < 13.59) journals. There is only one low impact journal, PLoS ONE, which is bigger in terms of output than all the other journals in PLoS combined. Its editorial policy is fundamentally different to the higher impact journals in that it does not require novelty or ‘strong results’. All it requires is methodological soundness.

Comparing PLoS ONE to the other PLoS journals then offers the opportunity to plot the growing divide between ‘high impact’ and ‘standard’ research papers. I will follow the hypothesis that more and more information is required for a publication (Vale, 2015). More information could be mirrored in three values: the number of references, authors, or pages.

And indeed, the higher impact PLoS journal articles have longer and longer reference sections, a rise of 24% from 46 to 57 over the last ten years (Pearson r = .11, Spearman rho = .11), see also my previous blog post for a similar pattern in another high impact journal outside of PLoS.


The lower impact PLoS ONE journal articles, on the other hand, practically did not change in the same period (Pearson r = .01, Spearman rho = -.00).


The diverging pattern between higher and low impact journals can also be observed with the number of authors per article. While in 2006 the average article in a higher impact PLoS journal was authored by 4.7 people, the average article in 2016 was written by 7.8 authors, a steep rise of 68% (Pearson r = .12, Spearman rho = .19).


And again, the low impact PLoS ONE articles do not exhibit the same change, remaining more or less unchanged (Pearson r = .01, Spearman rho = .02).


Finally, the number of pages per article tells the same story of runaway information density in higher impact journals and little to no change in PLoS ONE. Limiting myself to articles published until late november 2014(when lay-out changes complicate the comparison), the average higher impact journal article grew substantially in higher impact journals (Pearson r = .16, Spearman rho = .13) but not in PLoS ONE (Pearson r = .03, Spearman rho = .02).



So, overall, it is true that more and more information is required for a publication in a high impact journal. No similar rise in information density is seen in PLoS ONE. The publication landscape has changed. More effort is now needed for a high impact publication compared to ten years ago.

Wanna explore the data set yourself? I made a web-app which you can use in RStudio or in your web browser. Have fun with it and tell me what you find.

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Vale, R.D. (2015). Accelerating scientific publication in biology Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 13439-13446 DOI: 10.1101/022368

Do twitter or facebook activity influence scientific impact?

Are scientists smart when they promote their work on social media? Isn’t this a waste of time, time which could otherwise be spent in the lab running experiments? Perhaps not. An analysis of all available articles published by PLoS journals suggests otherwise.

My own twitter activity might best be thought of as learning about science (in the widest sense), while what I do on facebook is really just shameless procrastination. It turns out that this pattern holds more generally and impacts on how to use social media effectively to promote science.

In order to make this claim, I downloaded the twitter and facebook activity associated with every single article published in any journal by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), using this R-script here. PLoS is the open access publisher of the biggest scientific journal PLoS ONE as well as a number of smaller, more high impact journals. The huge amount of data allows me to have a 90% chance of discovering even a small effect (r = .1) if it actually exists.

I should add that I limited my sample to those articles published after May 2012 (which is when PLoS started tracking tweets) and January 2015 (in order to allow for at least two years to aggregate citations). The 87,649 remaining articles published in any of the PLoS journals offer the following picture.


There is a small but non-negligible association between impact on twitter (tweets) and impact in the scientific literature (citations): Pearson r = .12, p < .001; Spearman rho = .18, p < .001. This pattern held for nearly every PLoS journal individually as well (all Pearson r ≥ .10 except for PLoS Computational Biology; all Spearman rho ≥ .12 except for PLoS Pathogens). This result is in line with Peoples et al.’s (2016) analysis of twitter activity and citations in the field of ecology.

So, twitter might indeed help a bit to promote an article. Does this hold for social media in general? A look at facebook reveals a different picture. The relationship between facebook mentions of an article and its scientific impact is so small as to be practically negligible: Pearson r = .03, p < .001; Spearman rho = .06, p < .001. This pattern of only a tiny association between facebook mentions and citations held for every single PLoS journal (Pearson r ≤ .09, Spearman rho ≤ .08).


In conclusion, twitter can be used for promoting your scientific work in an age of increased competition for scientific reading time (Renear & Palmer, 2009). Facebook, on the other hand, can be used for procrastinating.

Wanna explore the data set yourself? I made a web-app which you can use in RStudio or in your web browser. Have fun with it and tell me what you find.

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Peoples BK, Midway SR, Sackett D, Lynch A, & Cooney PB (2016). Twitter Predicts Citation Rates of Ecological Research. PloS one, 11 (11) PMID: 27835703

Renear AH, & Palmer CL (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5942), 828-32 PMID: 19679805