Background: Influential medical journals shape medical science and practice and their prestige is usually appraised by citation impact metrics, such as the journal impact factor. However, how permanent are medical journals and how stable is their impact over time?
Methods and results: We evaluated what happened to general medical journals that were publishing papers half a century ago, in 1959. Data were retrieved from ISI Web of Science for citations and PubMed (Journals function) for journal history. Of 27 eligible journals publishing in 1959, 4 have stopped circulation (including two of the most prestigious journals in 1959) and another 7 changed name between 1959 and 2009. Only 6 of these 27 journals have been published continuously with their initial name since they started circulation. The citation impact of papers published in 1959 gives a very different picture from the current journal impact factor; the correlation between the two is non-significant and very close to zero. Only 13 of the 5,223 papers published in 1959 received at least 5 citations in 2009.
Conclusions: Journals are more permanent entities than single papers, but they are also subject to major change and their relative prominence can change markedly over time.