H-index, which was previously an obscure scholarly metric, has become the subject of heated public debate. The first time, it was declared that Bjorn Lomborg, who is skeptical about the relative significance of climate change, would be heading a research center at the University of Western Australia, many scientists disagreed due to his H-index.
Most of them were against Lomborg’s new research center and referred to the fact that his H-index score was 3. Because a person considered for the professorship in the natural sciences should have an H score about 10 times more than that.
For those that are outside of academia, this measure probably makes little sense. So let us see what the H-index is and why we should use it to judge the competency of someone who is selected for the leadership of a research center.
The H-index and Its Calculation
The H-Index is a number that indicates the productivity and influence of a researcher. Jorge Hirsch invented it in 2005, a physicist at the University of California. Professor Hirsch wanted to create a numerical sign of the contribution a researcher has made to his/her field of study. At first, the measure was raw citation counts, which means that the number indicated how many times other studies had cited articles written by that researcher.
This method was straightforward; but, there was a critical problem since a researcher could get a high number of citation counts due to just one significant research project.
If a researcher published one study that became very popular and then never published any paper again after that, they would be considered successful according to this system. As a result, some people might have a distorting effect on the perception of a researcher’s credibility.
Hirsch proposed another approach for the evaluation of the researchers to overcome this issue. He called it the H-index (H stands for Hirsch). The H-index indicates the number of papers (H) of a researcher that has been cited at least H times. For example, according to Google Scholar, someone has an H-index of 45. It means that they have 45 papers that are cited at least 45 times in other studies. In this way, a scientist is praised for having many articles that are cited several times rather than one or two studies with very high citations.
According to this new method of calculation, if someone wants to increase their H-index, they should try to encourage other researchers to cite their papers with more modest citation levels, rather than on one or two renowned papers which are already widely cited.
Influence of the H-index
The H-index was originally created to assess the researchers in the field of theoretical physics; But, its influence has spread much further. It is a measure by which researchers in various fields evaluate both themselves and others.
Currently, H-index is usually used in the evaluation of job applicants for academic positions. It is also used for the appraisal of applicants for research grants. Moreover, some scholars might even use it as a sign of self-worth.
H-index has several benefits for the researchers. It is informative about the degree of their influence in their field of study. Therefore, others could easily assess their contributions, even those who are not experts in that field of study.
How Many Times Have You Been Cited?
If someone attends an interview panel in an area that they are not familiar with, they will be unable to assess the quality of the research of the interviewee. But, using H-index can help them understand the level of influence of the person they are interviewing.
Moreover, the it helps us avoid partial judgments that often damage our perception of the qualities of a researcher. For example, if I prefer saltwater economics to freshwater economics, then I am most likely inclined to employ the saltwater economist and try to find an argument not to accept the freshwater economist. But, the H-index helps us to maintain a more objective point of view.
The Problems with the H-index
Please notice that the H-index also has several problems. For instance, it is difficult to compare H-scores in various areas. It can often be higher in one field (e.g., economics) compared to another one (e.g., literary criticism).
Moreover, the H-index also overshadows the other information about the author. Therefore, not enough attention is paid to whether the article was published in a top journal on one’s own or the author was part of a huge team.
Maybe the most disturbing issue about the H-index is that it overshadows the ideas. It is also true about the other evaluation systems of research productivity or influence. When we use them, we measure intellectual endeavor without any reference to the content of the research. As a result, the ideas could be ignored during a discussion about academic matters. When discussing research metrics, there is no need to refer to the research’s content.
With the growth of this attitude towards research, ambitious scholars will turn into H-index entrepreneurs. As a result, universities that used to be knowledge creators are now becoming metric maximizers.