Brian Fath

Brian Fath

Brian Fath is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University, USA, and Editor-in-Chief for the journal, Ecological Modelling. Like all journal editors, he wants his journal to continue improving. However, unlike many editors, he has a passion for network analysis, giving him a unique insight into the way ranking metrics are calculated and an enhanced understanding of how scholarly literature is cited within communities.

Fath uses ecological network analysis to identify relationships between non-connected elements in food webs. He says: “Network analysis is a very powerful tool to identify hidden relationships. We can now integrate the networks of different systems and identify indirect pathways, making it possible for us to see the unexpected consequences of our actions. For example, CFCs looked good in the lab, but it took 40 years to understand their effect on the planet. Through network analysis, we can potentially gauge those effects before we cause them.”

In October 2007, he was invited to give a presentation on “Assessing Journal Quality Using Bibliometrics” at the Elsevier Editors’ Conference in Miami. While carrying out background research, he came across Derek de Solla Price. “His 1965 paper (1) was a revelation, and I literally just stumbled upon it,” he recalls.

Eye opener

“I thought this paper was fascinating. For instance, de Solla Price identifies research fronts, marked by review papers. This is important, because he also shows that the frequency of review papers is not linked to time, but to the number of papers published in the field. Hot topics, where a lot of papers are published, prompt review papers more frequently than slower-paced areas. This changed my mind on the frequency of publishing review papers,” says Fath.

He was also interested in de Solla Price’s discussion of non-cited papers. Around 35% of papers in a given year are never cited. Editors obviously want to publish the best research, but how can they recognize the outliers? “Our journal is quite avant-garde. We publish some novel papers, and naturally some don’t get cited. But on the other hand, if we could find a way to reduce the number of non-cited papers, our Impact Factor would go up,” he remarks.

Improving quality

Fath believes that bibliometrics can help editors improve the quality of their journals. “We can improve the field by knowing when to call for a review paper and by promoting timely special issues, and these actions are reflected in our bibliometrics,” he says. For instance, he recently discovered that special issues of his journal were actually less frequently cited than regular issues. “We’ve decided to try doing themed issues next year to see if that serves the community better than traditional conference-based special issues,” he says.

He is also paying more attention to keywords in papers, and especially in abstracts. He believes that, “people are really starting to use search engines to find papers, and it seems logical to use keywords. Abstracts are also very important: well-written, clear English is very attractive.”

He does have one concern, however. “We are going through a period of rapid journal growth, which I don’t think is sustainable. It’s possible to get almost anything published somewhere these days – in fact, it can get quite hard to follow the literature. And all these papers are citing other papers, which means everyone’s Impact Factor is increasing. But I wonder if it’s sustainable; can all these new journals also expect their Impact Factors to rise?”

Yet overall, despite some resistance, Fath is convinced that citation analysis is very valuable: “Communities should be citing each other – this is what marks them out as a community; and if you’re not being cited by your own community, you should want to know this and do something about it.”


(1) de Solla Price, D.J. (1965) “Networks of scientific papers”, Science, Vol. 149, pp. 510–15.
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