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What is the h-index Scale? Is it Important For Your Academic Career?

One way the academic community measures success is through a metric called the Hirsch Index, known more commonly as the h-index.

An h-index is a numerical indicator of the quality and quantity of academic publications that someone has authored or co-authored. It takes into account papers published in academic journals and other academic literature; a higher h-index can indicate more influence and respect for a scholar’s body of work from the academic community; it can serve as a form of proof of expertise.

Hiring committees, promotions committees, and sometimes even panellists considering new PhD program candidates, will look to an individual’s h-index when determining whether or not to invest in them.

As such, some academics strive to increase their h-index. Some do so by sacrificing other aspects of their life i.e. by focusing on publishing papers and increasing their presence in the academic community to the detriment of health and wellbeing.

Some scholars take their h-index very seriously and watch it like investors monitoring the stock market.

A while back I saw someone list their h-index on their dating profile. I figured it was a form of academic ‘peacocking’. GSOH, INTJ, LTR, h-index: 40 ??!!

When I started my academic journey, I had no idea what an h-index was and I’ve spent most of my academic life paying very little attention to it. (**some academics just read that line and gasped in horror**) Rather than run ragged chasing ever-shifting performance metrics, my aim has always been to do work I deemed of interest and of value… then let the cards fall where they may.

But, as I’m on a journey to learn all I can about digital tools in higher education (see: 50+ tools I wish I’d known about when starting my PhD) I thought it was about time to learn a little more about the Hirsch metric.

Your h-index will find you

An h-index is an individual-level metric. This refers to it being attached to an individual scholar, rather than, say to a journal or a specific publication. I have an h-index, and if you publish, so will you. Its attribution is inescapable thanks to the digitisation of knowledge.

How is an h-index calculated?

Your h-index is one metric for measuring the impact of your research. According to our trusty friend Wikipedia, an h-index is calculated with the following recipe: “The h-index is the largest number of h such that h articles have at least h citations each”.

You can calculate your h-index manually, or rely on technology to calculate it for you.

Both ways are explained below.

Can you calculate your h-index manually?

To calculate your h-index manually, you’ll need a list of your academic publications and knowledge of how many times each has been cited.

To find out how many times one of your academic outputs has been cited, you could visit Google Scholar, type in the title of your article in the search box and (hopefully) your article will show up on the search engine results page. Under the description of the article, you should see the words ‘Cited by’ followed by a number. If the text ‘Cited by’ does not appear, you can conclude that your article has not yet been cited. You can also use Scopus or Web of Science to find out how many times your outputs have been cited.

Once you’ve determined your total number of outputs, and know the total number of times each has been cited, you can start to do the math by using the recipe above (i.e. “The h-index is the largest number of h such that h articles have at least h citations each”)

Here are two examples of an h-index calculation:

  • Scholar X has over 100 academic publications. While this is an impressive publication record, because only 8 of their publications have been cited at least 8 times, the scholar’s h-index is 8.
  • Scholar Y has fewer publications: 10 outputs in total. But because each of those outputs has been cited a minimum of 10 times, their h-index is higher, and their h-index is 10.
  • Scholar Z has one publication that’s been cited 2000 times. Their h-index is 1.

Your h-index can only be as high as the total number of papers you’ve written. However, quantity must be coupled with citations for your h-index to rise.

Where can I find my h-index online?

One way to freely find your h-index is by looking it up on Google Scholar, which auto-generates an h-index for every scholar indexed on the site.

To find out your h-index (or the h-index for any indexed scholar), type the scholar’s name into the Google Scholar search box, and wait for the scholar’s user profile to appear at the top of the results page. Then, click on the profile user’s name (should be hyperlinked), and you will be taken to their profile page. On the profile page, you will find the scholar’s h-index.

BUT, before you blindly accept the h-index as a metric of truth, you should know that Google Scholar’s automated number crunching can suffer from a few pitfalls and the h-index is subject to manipulation.

Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t take an h-index at face value:

  • The Google Scholar h-index includes self-citations. Self-citation refers to the practice of a scholar referencing one of their own papers in a new paper that they are authoring. Scholars often include self-citations in their papers as a way to give credit to their own work and to demonstrate how their research has progressed over time, but self-citation can also be done gratuitously (to game the system – shock horror!)
  • Google Scholar can incorrectly attribute articles. If, say, a paper with lots of citations is mistakenly attributed to Dr Jon Snow in London when it was actually written by a similarly named Dr Jon Snow in Australia, the London Jon would benefit from their h-index potentially rising – even though they never wrote the paper. This is far more common than you’d imagine. Fixing these errors of automation is based, somewhat, on honesty, and scholars ensuring that their list of publications is up-to-date and accurate. Thus, the incorrectly attributed Dr Snow must manually remove the paper from their Google Scholar profile so that it is not artificially inflating their h-index, and there’s not a lot of incentive to do that when grants and hiring committees look at h-index scores with little interrogation of the data from which the h-index number was calculated.
  • A scholar can also bump up their h-index through academic games of trading citations. Citations can be a form of friendship and network-building currency. Scholars may build relationships with other scholars and then agree (formally or informally) to cite each other’s work to lift each other up.

The benefits of having a high h-index

Having a high h-index can be beneficial. For one, a high h-index tends to signal to other researchers and organizations that the person is an authoritative voice in their field.

Moreover, having a large number of scholarly works that are well-cited can help to advance professional development opportunities such as grants, awards, fellowships, and job applications.

Because the h-index is used as a metric by which others judge your scholarly prowess, it can lead to obtaining entrance into PhD programs, to promotion, higher salaries and greater overall career success. But this is far from guaranteed.

It is generally accepted that a high h-index is important for individuals who are wishing to pursue an academic or research career to cultivate a strong publication record and actively build up their h-index over time. But you will find many exceptions to this adage. There are many pathways through academia!

There are lots of other factors that contribute to a successful career, like networking, industry engagement, community outreach, and privilege. Given the single dimension of the h-index and its susceptibility to manipulation, it should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Personally, my h-index has never been a motivational or driving factor in my career. But disciplinary and cultural norms will factor into the importance the h-index plays in your own career.

Why is my h-index so low?

Having a low h-index can be disheartening for some. However, ultimately, the number attached to one’s scholarship should not take precedence over what one actually contributes to the knowledge base, or determine one’s sense of self-worth.

A low h-index may indicate that a scholar does not have much of an audience for their work, despite that work’s importance.

An h-index could also reflect disciplinary norms and a scholar’s stage of career (i.e. years since PhD graduation).

A low h-index does not necessarily preclude future success in research.

How can I increase my h-index?

In order to increase your h-index, there are several strategies you can employ. Popular strategies include:

  1. (easier said than done) Publish in high-ranking journals with established readership. These publications can reach larger audiences thus increasing the likelihood of your work being cited.
  2. Make sure you cite your own previously published work whenever appropriate.
  3. Widen the scope of collaboration on projects beyond one’s direct field. This may lead to wider recognition and greater impact – reaching out beyond traditional venues can expose new minds not just to one’s work but also any additional related works that become associated with it.
  4. Some scholars have recommended chasing trends i.e. refining the research process to publish on topics with greater audience interest. This can feel a little like chasing likes on social media, and given the time it takes to craft, complete, write up and publish… it is risky that you won’t catch the trend anyway. You can also end up producing research that your heart isn’t in, which could lead to burnout.
  5. Promote your research to a wider audience to enhance the likelihood of citation.
  6. Build your network.

That’s a wrap

At the end of the day, devoting yourself to an academic career in which you conduct research that you find meaningful is far more likely to bring you joy than will be chasing metrics and monitoring your Google Scholar profile page.

It’s also worth remembering that the metrics by which scholars are judged are constantly changing – so while the h-index may carry some weight today, it might be irrelevant tomorrow. And if that is the case, hopefully, the guy I saw using it on his dating profile has a few additional tricks up his sleeve 🙂

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Additional resources

Links to external resources and information. Note. If you come across other useful resources send them through and I’ll add them to the list.

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