Journal Impact Factor is rewarding!

When researchers anticipate their own publications in scientific journals with high impact factor, the brain’s reward center is activated.

This is the result of a recent study on the implications of incentive structures in academia published by researchers from the University of Lübeck in PLOS ONE this Tuesday. The research group around Frieder Paulus and Sören Krach at the Social Neuroscience Lab at the Department of Psychiatry report the results of two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies.

The Journal Impact Factor (JIF) is increasingly used as the central measure to evaluate the quality and visibility of scientific work. Current debates and analyses reveal that the JIF thus has profound effects on the career of researchers (e.g. appointment of professorships, allocation of third-party funding, length of employment). The incentive structure of academia and of every scientist’s life is therefore mimicking economic principles, and the JIF has taken a role as “currency” in academia.  


In hardly any other professional field the main criterion for the evaluation of work performance, both in terms of a single contribution or the general performance of a person, is as publically available and standardized as in science. We were thus not surprised to see that scientists are sensitive to the impact factor of journals.” (Paulus/ Krach)

The Lübeck study investigated to what extend the JIF influences the subjective value of a publication and the activation of the reward system in scientists. With higher JIF of an anticipated publication the activity of the Nucleus Accumbens, a core region of the brain’s reward system, increased. Furthermore, those researchers who had published with higher JIF in the past had a stronger activity of the reward system. Besides the JIF of a publication, the order of authorship also modulated the activity of the nucleus accumbens.

This study provides first empirical evidence on how scientists adapt to the incentive structures of academia and internalize the JIF as a central criterion for the evaluation of their work. Therefore, the current findings have implications for scientific work on the part of researchers and the institutions involved. 

Figure: The researchers used title pages of potential publications in journals with different journal impact factors. The publications were presented to neuroscientists as rewards for fast reactions during fMRI. Anticipated publications in high-impact journals such as Science or Nature Neuroscience evoked stronger reward activations in the Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc) than comparable title pages in low-impact journals (Source: PLOS ONE).