You’re applying for your first tenure-track position, and you’ve heard that your dream department uses something called the h-index to decide who will get interviews. It’s an increasingly common scenario: institutions are now regularly using the h-index to help make hiring and promotion decisions, especially when they have to screen many applicants. For that reason, it’s a good idea to become familiar with what an h-index is and how it can work for you.
What is the h-index?
The h-index is a handy metric that attempts to measure a scientist’s productivity and impact on the field. First suggested in 2005 by Jorge E. Hirsch, a physicist at UC San Diego, this number has taken the academic world by storm. Briefly, it works like this: your h-index is x if you have x publications that have been cited x times. Thus, if your h-index is 10, it means you have 10 publications that have been cited at least 10 times each. The more highly cited papers that you have authored, the greater your h-index.
Pros and Cons of the h-index
The h-index has a number of advantages over previous ways of measuring scientist productivity. Because it measures impact as well as the sheer number of articles a researcher publishes, for example, it ensures that no one is rewarded for quantity at the expense of quality. Like any metric that seeks to simplify something complicated, however, it has some limitations as well. Because it takes time to accumulate citations, the h-index can’t be used to compare young researchers to more established researchers. And some fields generate more citations than others, so it shouldn’t be used to compare researchers across disciplines.
How do I Find Out My h-index?
It’s easy, and you have a few choices. You can log onto Web of Science or Scopus to calculate your h-index or even use Google Scholar. Note that you will probably get different values from different sources. Web of Science, for example, only considers citations from ISI-recognized journals. Google, by contrast, considers a wider range of journals as well as other sources of citations, such as books. Determining your h-index before you go on the job market is similar to checking your credit score before buying a house: it’s good to know what you’re working with before you enter this stressful situation!
How can I Improve My h-index?
The short answer is to publish articles that other researchers want to read and cite. People have come up with all sorts of ways to game the h-index: to cite themselves frequently, for example, or to write a bunch of reviews (which tend to get cited more often than research articles), or to glom onto major papers as very minor authors, or to bully the authors of the articles they review into citing their work. Someone has even jokingly proposed a website called PleaseCiteMe.com! The truth is that hiring committees have seen it all before, and they are not going to be impressed by articles littered with self-citations or a CV filled with reviews but short on original research. More important, you probably didn’t go into science to spend your time gaming some index – and some of the sneaky practices above could hurt your reputation in the field.
Boring but true: The best way to up your h-index is to do all the tried-and-true things that benefit all aspects of your research career:
- Publish, publish, publish, and try to place your research in journals that others in your field are likely to read. Not every paper is going to land in Nature, but some scientists are convinced publishing in open access journals boosts citations (note: not all evidence supports the idea that free articles translate into more citations). Also, it may be wise to limit the number of non-journal pieces you write; book chapters, for example, tend to be cited less because they are harder to access. Fewer readers means fewer citations.
- Present your work at major conferences, and take advantage of the opportunity to get to know others with similar research interests. Identify a few important people in your field beforehand to introduce yourself to – you may even be able to email them ahead of time to arrange to get together for coffee or lunch. Even if you find the social events at conferences nerve-racking, make a deal with yourself to mingle for half an hour at each one. Chances are that you will have so much fun you end up staying longer, and all of these new research friends are now going to be interested in your work. Remember: In order for people to cite your work, they have to know about it.
- Never say no to an invited seminar, at least at the beginning of your career. In fact, it couldn’t hurt to volunteer to give a talk at a nearby institution or a university in a city you are traveling to for other reasons – it’s a great way to make others aware of your work while building your professional network.
Chances are, if you do solid research and are conscientious about writing it up and presenting it, you will develop a respectable h-index.
How do I Use my h-index?
Now that the h-index is so commonly used, researchers are beginning to wonder whether they should include it on their CVs or websites. Because the h-index is a bit polarizing (some researchers love that it offers a simplified measure of research quality, others hate that simplification), it’s probably safest to leave it off of application materials unless requested. Many committees that are interested in your h-index will have their own method of calculating it, so they will probably brush aside the value you provide. Instead, it’s best to keep tabs on your h-index for your own use. Periodically checking it is a great way to stay motivated to publish and share your results with others.
Interested in finding out more about the h-index, from both fans and foes? Check out the following resources:
Bateman, A. Why I love the h-index. PLoS Biologue.
Hampton, V. Jorge Hirsch: the man behind the metric. Research Trends, December 2009.
Harzing, A. Reflections on the h-index.
Impactstory.org Four great reasons to stop caring so much about the h-index.
Oswald, N. Does your h-index measure up? BiteSize Bio.