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Richard Horton

The Lancet Group — impact that matters

July 1, 2022 | 6 min read

By Richard Horton, FRCP, FMedSci

As The Lancet Group receives impressive Impact Factor results, Richard Horton writes about the values behind his family of journals and their real-world impact

As Publisher of The Lancet Group, Richard Horton believes that “the values we have nurtured over the past two decades prepared us well for responding to the acute pressures of this pandemic.” Editors have a love-hate relationship with the Impact Factor. We might resist the idea of constructing football-like league tables for scientific journals. And we may dislike the game-playing we know some editors indulge in: varying numbers of citable items published in order to optimise the Impact Factor calculation.

But we also live in the real world of competitive science. We know that some country’s scientific institutions, even governments, follow the undulations of the Impact Factor with astonishing care and attention. Careers can be made by publication in the top cited journals. Fortunes gained. Fame acquired. Editors tack between attachment and animosity to the number their journal is assigned in Clarivate’s Journal Citation Report (JCR)(opens in new tab/window).

Yet, like it or not, this number matters.

So it was an historic moment for The Lancet(opens in new tab/window) when this year we displaced The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)(opens in new tab/window) to reach the first position in the JCR’s General and Internal Medicine category. The NEJM has reigned supreme since Impact Factors were first introduced in 1975. But in an era of pandemic science, The Lancet saw its Impact Factor rise from 79 in 2020 to 202 in 2021. The NEJM also saw its Impact Factor rise impressively to 176, with The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)(opens in new tab/window) close behind on 157. But for the first time in the controversial era of the Impact Factor, The Lancet can now fairly claim to be the world’s leading medical journal.

The Lancet Group is a collection of 24 titles. All Lancet journals listed with the JCR saw their Impact Factors rise . Some saw spectacular increases:

The Lancet Respiratory Medicine(opens in new tab/window) rose from 30.7 to 102.6. The Lancet Microbe(opens in new tab/window) posted a first Impact Factor of 86.2. The Lancet Psychiatry(opens in new tab/window) rose from 26.5 to 77.1. The Lancet Public Health(opens in new tab/window) from 21.6 to 72.4. And The Lancet Infectious Diseases(opens in new tab/window) from 25.1 to 71.4.

The Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet Infectious DiseasesJohn McConnell(opens in new tab/window) , very sadly died unexpectedly earlier this year. His journal played a crucial part in publishing science underpinning our understanding of COVID-19. I would like to dedicate The Lancet Group’s success this year to John and his contribution over the past 30 years.

When I became Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet in 1995, my hope was to expand the idea of The Lancet beyond a single journal. We launched three offspring in quick succession —The Lancet Oncology(opens in new tab/window)The Lancet Infectious Diseases, and The Lancet Neurology(opens in new tab/window). And as those journals grew in visibility and reputation, we embarked on a second phase of expansion into further specialties: Child and Adolescent Health(opens in new tab/window)Diabetes and Endocrinology(opens in new tab/window)Digital Health(opens in new tab/window)Gastroenterology and Hepatology(opens in new tab/window)Global Health(opens in new tab/window)Haematology(opens in new tab/window)Healthy Longevity(opens in new tab/window)HIV(opens in new tab/window)Microbe(opens in new tab/window)Planetary Health(opens in new tab/window)Psychiatry(opens in new tab/window)Public Health(opens in new tab/window)Respiratory Medicine(opens in new tab/window), and Rheumatology(opens in new tab/window). Some of these titles are gold open access, some are a hybrid between subscription and open access. We launched two general medical gold open access science titles — eBioMedicine(opens in new tab/window) and eClinicalMedicine(opens in new tab/window) — in 2014 and 2018 respectively. And in 2020, we extended our global coverage into Regional Health: Western Pacific(opens in new tab/window)Europe(opens in new tab/window)Americas(opens in new tab/window), and Southeast Asia(opens in new tab/window). We will be launching Regional Health titles for the Middle East and Africa soon.

Why has The Lancet Group seen these substantial increases in Impact Factor this year? One answer is COVID-19. In 2020 and 2021, we received thousands of submissions from around the world documenting the initiation and effects of the pandemic. We were the first journal to report the outbreak in Wuhan, China, in January, 2020  — an article that prompted BioNTech Co-Founder Uğur Şahin, MD, to start development of what would become the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. We were also the first journal to publish the results  of a randomised trial of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 infection (the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine). But the possible reasons why we were able to be a strong voice for science during the pandemic are important to explore, I think. I can’t prove beyond doubt that the strategy we have been pursuing for a quarter century is responsible for these latest indicators of success. Yet these possibilities might be useful for other journals contemplating how to respond to health threats in an almost post-pandemic world.

First, we have sought to take a global perspective on medicine and medical science. Although we are an English-language journal with its editorial centre of gravity in London, we have editors distributed worldwide. And we are committed to the idea of supporting a truly global and inclusive conversation about health and health science. In China, we published our first series on the country’s health system(opens in new tab/window) over a decade ago. We established an editorial office in Beijing, with locally appointed editors. We aimed to build trust with the Chinese medical community. And so, when a pandemic struck, our relationships with Chinese scientists, I hope, gave them confidence that we would be a fair partner in disseminating their work internationally at a moment of peril and partisan political division.

Second, the breadth and depth of the specialties we covered has meant that scientists have had many opportunities to find a home for their work — from infectious diseases to public health, from microbiology to respiratory disease. We didn’t have to turn good research away because of limited space. On the contrary, we had the capacity to publish a wide range of work across disciplines.

Third, we recognised the urgent importance of publishing high-quality peer-reviewed papers quickly. We had the editorial resources to fast-track research and publish within days or weeks rather than months. Together with our own preprint server, this efficiency meant that we could be extremely responsive to the way the pandemic and our response to the pandemic was evolving.

Fourth, we believe that the academic medical community is a massively neglected positive force for good in society. Through the partnerships we make with institutions and individuals, we try to demonstrate a commitment to using science as a reliable platform for social and political action.

And finally, although we are a group of over 200 people and 24 journals, we work as one organisation with one team and one vision.

During the pandemic, societies survived thanks to the many thousands of essential workers who kept services going in the teeth of lockdowns and government restrictions. The whole Lancet team (editors, assistant editors, production and e-production, marketing and communications, and the journal office) was also on the frontline of the pandemic — leading the publication and curation of new knowledge, shaping our interpretation and understanding of COVID-19, and being voices for advocacy and accountability.

I believe that the values we have nurtured over the past two decades prepared us well for responding to the acute pressures of this pandemic. And, of course, everything depends on the people one works with. I have been fortunate to work with the most passionate and talented team of colleagues that I could ever have wished for. Their work has had an impact on the lives of billions of people living in the midst of a global health crisis.

In the end, that’s really the only impact that matters.


Portrait photo of Richard Horton, FRCP, FMedSci


Richard Horton, FRCP, FMedSci


The Lancet