Science is becoming ever more scientific. A whole new industry has sprung up - that of keeping track of the productivity of individual scientists or groups or departments. The Citation Index has been around for ages, where you can look up who’s citing a given paper. Then came Impact Factors, which measure in a single number the quality of a journal (by the number of times the articles published there are cited elsewhere, and when). Now, not spanking new but just coming onto my Things to Pay Attention To horizon, the H-index.
As a journal can be reduced to one IF number (who doubts that a paper in Nature, or Cell, has more impact than one in the International Journal of Modest but Reliable Results, but can - and should - we express this in a single dimension?), so can a person.
My H-index today is 9.
My boss’s is 27, my grad school mentor’s 32; colleagues just out of their post-docs score around 4.
What’s in the 9? It’s a mix of how many papers I published in the past n years, and how many times they’ve been cited. I’m not sure how the quality of the journals figures in, if it does. It should, since a couple of recent papers have had to pass a reasonably high bar to get through, but they’re too new to have appeared in the references of a next wave of papers. And what about the quality of the journals publishing the papers citing my papers? Does a single big paper in a big journal give my H as much bang as a whole slew of notes in rags nobody reads or will ever cite? Where is the balance there? If somebody cites my paper to say it’s wrong, does that still give me a boost? (Yes, it does.) And what of the positioning of authors - does it even count to be on a paper listed 7th of 20 authors (and if so, how much versus being first?)
When people first started tossing H-indices around, it was kind of like joining Facebook. For the first couple of weeks or months you sign up all your friends who are willing, you post a new ‘status’ every day, you’re constantly checking to see if somebody has left you a note, or a joke, or a link, and you’re constantly sending them yourself.
Then you calm down. You go back to normal life and wean yourself off connection addiction to a normal, noninvasive, level. Everybody knows you can’t really assess a person’s scientific productivity with a single number, no matter how many factors go into calculating it. So it’s more from curiosity that we look people up. If I want to evaluate the cv of a potential post-doc, I read it; I note the subjects, the journals, the number of co-authors. I don’t let the H-index say it all.
The problem with the system is, some people are starting to let the H-index say it all. Granting agencies, who receive hundreds or even thousands of applications for a limited pot of funding: they have to separate the grain from the chaff somehow, and an easy first round is a simple H-cutoff. Ditto for job applicants when there are many. Even Masters students looking for labs to do their projects, not knowing how else to evaluate potential hosts, have been known to rank the lab heads by H and go down the list. Never mind that the most exciting, dynamic team may just be too young to have accumulated a big H. Never mind personal interest in subject matter or getting along with one’s colleagues. Never mind working in a specialized field whose journals are simply modest in the IF ranks.
So that’s where I am today. We’ve had a great year in the lab, turning out more than half again as many clinical results this year than last, only that stuff doesn’t make it into many papers. I’ve got great ideas (I like to think, and my boss agrees), and an efficient team, and lots of new equipment. But with an H-index of 9, the INCa won’t even read the abstract of my grant application. Can’t even get in the door.