Few contemporary inventions have influenced academic publishing as much as journal impact factors. On the other hand, debates and discussion on the potential limitations of, and appropriate uses for, journal performance indicators are almost as long as the history of the measures themselves. Given that scientometrics is often undertaken using bibliometric techniques, the history of the former is inextricably linked to the latter. As with any controversy it is difficult to separate an invention from its history, and for these reasons, the current article provides an overview of some key historical events of relevance to the impact factor. When he first proposed the concept over half a century ago, Garfield did not realise that impact factors would one day become the subject of such widespread controversy. As the current Special Issue of Scientometrics suggests, this debate continues today.
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