One of my Friday morning rituals is to sip my coffee and look up my h index on Web of Science (for my biomedical peeps, that's our equivalent of PubMed). For those of you who may not know what I am talking about, your h-index is the number of papers (N) cited at least N times and it is supposed to provide a metric for comparing the productivity and impact of researchers within a field. It is also supposed to integrate both the number of papers and the "impact" of your papers. The idea is that having more papers will only help you if they are also cited well. As with any metric that purports to quantify scientists, it is highly controversial. (Does anyone else see the irony that we are obsessed with quantifying every aspect of nature but ourselves?) Regardless of its weaknesses, I have to admit I have recently become a little obsessed with my h-index.
I'm not sure I can tell you when or why my obsession began. One day, I looked up my h-index (which Web of Science does so easily for you) and then looked up the h-index of people whose league I am not in but desperately wish I was (henceforth referred to by their official name: The League of Super-Ecologists). At one point, when I was kicked by my promotion committee for not doing something "needed for tenure" that actually had nothing to do with getting tenure here or at any other university, I "showed" my university by wasting an inordinate amount of time developing an h-index graph for the League of Super Ecologists. (Since this was part of my mental discussion with myself about whether or not to try to leave Confused U, this was actually a necessary step for me to convince myself I had a shot in hell on the job market). However, in order to understand how I ranked comparative to the League of Super Ecologists, I had to correct for time since Ph.D (obviously more time out, the greater the potential for a higher h-index). For those of you who are curious, here it is (x-axis: year Ph.D awarded, y-axis h-index)
At this point, I should be clear that this is not exactly a random list. This is a plot of people whose work I respect and have some general name recognition in the biz. I collected data on 162 ecologists before I stopped being mad at my university. (I was really really pissed). I think General Disarray was a little worried about me during this time of my life (the words "unhealthy" and "obsessed" may have been used). And it is easy to become unhealthily fixated on these metrics as DrugMonkey pointed out a few weeks ago. In a job where criticism of one's performance abounds (I present as my evidence: proposal reviews, manuscript reviews, promotion and tenure reviews, the poor demoralized post-doc on the job hunt), the h-index can seem like it provides positive feedback. Every time the h-index clicks upwards, every time your citation count increases, it can seem like it is positive validation of your existence. Oh, it's a seductive and alluring siren call, which can end with your nerves wrecked on some scotch-and-rocks.
But my obsessed exercise did give me some interesting bits of information. First, I'll say I didn't do as badly as I thought when compared to members of the League. General Disarray thinks I undervalue myself (I can neither confirm nor deny). The data supporting that he might potentially possibly be right was important for my future planning. Since I do not count General Disarray as being objective, having data gave me confidence that perhaps I might not do that badly on the job market. Second, at least for the list created in my mind, there is a shockingly good relationship between time since Ph.D and the h-index. I mean, aside from some heteroscadicity evidenced by the increasing variance with academic age, many ecologists would kill for such a nice looking relationship from their field studies. I haven't decided how to interpret the graph, since it is from my imaginary League of Super Ecologists (not sure that selection criteria would fly in a Methods section, for example). I suspect that if one could really take a "random sample" of ecologists the graph would look more like a triangle, with dots filling on below the "edge" that appears in my graph, but that the low variance for the young people would remain and variance would increase substantially with age.
So, if I'm doing better than I thought I was, you may be wondering why I am still obsessed with my h-index. It's not because I'm unhappy with my number or desperately want more people to cite me. Truth is, I am a shockingly small number of citations away from becoming a teen-h'er and watching my h-index teeter on the edge of a new number for months has been slowly driving my INSANE. Like watching a golf ball perched precariously on the edge of the cup but refusing to fall in. Or fingers on a blackboard. Or waiting for a loved one to finally get off the plane and come through airport security. Or being a teenager who desperately just wants to be an adult. Auuugh. (Yes, I do have patience issues). Is this the week when it will finally teeter over??? NO. Well, crap. Maybe next week.