If the career opportunities, research funding and awards of Claude Shannon had depended on his h-index, he would have been in serious trouble. Even though his works were absolutely revolutionary and he created the basis for the recent digital revolution, he did not like to write too much, and would have probably faced hardships in academia today. Nevertheless, now, in the competitive “publish or perish” environment it is important to publish, and to publish in the right way.
A career in science depends more and more on quantitative measures that aim to evaluate the efficiency of work and the future potential of a researcher. Most of these measures depend on publishing output, thus many people conclude that we live in a “publish or perish” environment. Nowadays universities also face austerity measures and one could say, that we are living in “post-doc-apocalyptic” times, meaning that a large number of postdocs (working under temporary contracts) are competing for a small number of tenure positions. Universities are very competitive environment. Quantitative indicators, like the h-index, are becoming more and more important in this competition. Should you take notice of them? If you want to work in academia, you should. You will probably see a lot of disadvantages in this output-orientated system, but this is where we are at today. Taking care of your career, might require strategic decision making, which has to take into account possibilities of improving your quantitative indicators also.
What is the h-index?
Despite the fact that its relatively new (it was described for the first time in 2005), the h-index has become an important measure of career development. Just today I saw an academic job offer with a minimum h-index value added to the list of requirements. The h-index is generally used for choosing candidates for promotions and grant fundings. It is very often used as an official criteria, but in other cases it can be used by referees or reviewers to evaluate research output, because it is easy for anyone to determine what is the exact value of this parameter (have a look here for a reasons to love h-index).
If you still do not know what the h-index is, it is the time to tell you, because yours might be evaluated very soon. The h-index is a measure of the impact of a researcher (or a group of researchers). The h value means, that the author, group or the institution has published at least h papers, which gained at least h citations each. Jorge Hirsh, the inventor of the index, claimed that the value might be used to predict promotions, membership in scientific organizations and even the winner of the Nobel Prize. At this moment a lot of mature researchers think in a similar way, which explains the rapid growth in popularity of the index. As we will see, it has some disadvantages, even though it is seen as an efficient way of judging an academic record.
The h-index depends both on the number of publications and the impact of each one. Thus to improve yours, you should publish a lot of highly cited articles. Publishing fewer cited articles does not increase the value of the measure (thus a person who published one paper which is cited 100 times and 5 papers cited 5 times, has a smaller h-index than a person who published 6 articles, cited 6 time each).
Moreover, it is easy to spot that the h-index is strongly effected by all of the drawbacks associated with the “publish or perish” approach. Without looking further than Wikipedia, you can find a criticism of the h-index, regarding Évariste Galois, who made a significant contribution to the development of abstract algebra, but who only published two papers, thus having h-index of 2 and Claude E. Shannon, who is considered the godfather of the digital revolution and who reached a h-index of 7. These values are smaller than those achieved by some of the completely unknown postdocs today.
Well, now let’s try to answer the question: what to do with my h-index? Although I am not a mature researcher myself I have done some research to gather together some observations. Some are unethical and I do not really recommend them. But let’s start with these.
Improving your h–index: black hat techniques
As in every field of human activity, there are some black hat (not accepted or illegal) techniques for academics, which can help you succeed for a short time (i.e, it may increase your h-index, citation score, etc. and help you to gain some academic position or funding), but eventually it may lead to exclusion from the game, ostracism or legal problems. These are:
1) Frequent and irrelevant self citations. Each citation has to be relevant and helpful for the reader. Mass citation of your own work, when it is not necessary for a good understanding of your paper, might be seen as inappropriate. The major citation tracking systems (Scopus, Web of Science etc.) do not count self-citations, but Google Scholar does and this is one of the reasons why people do not treat GS as seriously. Although if you are trying to impress someone with a high h-index on Google Scholar and it comes out that it is build up on self citation you might not get another job in academia.
2) Creating citation circles. Again: Each citation has to be relevant and helpful for the reader. If you massively cite the works of your friends of coworkers, and some of them very often cite you, it may look suspicious. Of course this is normal in narrow fields, where there are not as many authors to cite. But a citation has to be relevant for the argument. It is usually enough to cite the best or most relevant works about a described problem. When you cite the works of your friends instead, and someone finds out that these friends cite you in a similar way, you may be in trouble.
3) Publishing the same or very similar work in several places to increase publishing volume. Each work has to be original and has to create new input. This is a must. This is the whole point of academic publishing.
4) Plagiarism. This is illegal, unethical and disgusting.
5) Frequently choosing low quality journals and conferences to disseminate your work. Some publishers do not prevent you from citing a huge number of irrelevant (also own) works and from writing nonsense. They usually offer very fast publication and make no remarks about your work. And you should definitely avoid them. Publish only in journals that you have read before, and that you value and possibly in new journals with a credible editorial board. In the second case, contact editors directly to ask about their involvement in the journal (some “predatory publishers” place famous names on their website without asking anyone to edit anything).
If you want to read more about black hat academic career advancing phenomenon enjoy this Academia.edu blogger.
Improving your h–index: white hat techniques
There are also legal and ethical ways of advancing your career. And in my opinion you should consider some of them. If you really do a good job as a researcher, some of them may help you and probably none of them will harm you.
1) Join collaborations with more mature researchers. According to a paper submitted to Arxiv and entitled “Will This Paper Increase Your h-index? Scientific Impact Prediction” by Yuxiao Dong, Reid A. Johnson, Nitesh V. Chawla, the main factors predicted in h-index growth after publishing a paper is…. Surprise, surprise! the authority of the paper’s first author. The more famous he or she is, the more citations the paper will gain. This is quite sad for the beginners, but there is little to gain in complaining about the facts. Academia is unfortunately quite conservative and it is good to have important friends in this world. So search for collaboration opportunities and do not reject good offers.
2) Publish in well known, established journals. This is second most important factor, according to the mentioned paper. Again, there is nothing new here, but it is good to remind yourself that choosing a place of publication is too important a decision to leave to the end of the research process. You should think more about where to publish and analyze all the advantages and disadvantages of each journal and discuss it with your possible co-authors. (Have a look here also.) Venue prestige is important, but as you will see it is not the only factor to be considered.
3) Publish in open access. Unfortunately the authors of the mentioned paper did not even try to determine, what the influence is of open access on h-index. Although since openness triggers more citation, it should also have a positive impact on h-index and other metrics. And here we come to the harder part of the decision.
In Life Sciences, medicine and some fields of physics and engineering there is a possibility to choose both, well known and open access journals. In other fields of research, authors have to judge, whether to publish in a high profile, or fully open access venue. It is a pity, that Yuxiao Dong, Reid A. Johnson, Nitesh V. Chawla did not try to help resolve this dilemma, and did not compare the impact of openness, with the impact of venue prestige. Although, even when you choose a traditional publishing outlet, you simply should (because of the possible impact and since its ethical) make it open in a green way (self archiving, remember to chose a proper repository) or by choosing a publisher-side open access option (which is usually expensive in the case of publishing in a traditional serial, but if you have good funding it should not be a problem). Both these options are at this moment a standard, and you should avoid publishers which do not allow them. (For more information have a look here.)
Open access is probably even more important for you if your article is interdisciplinary or if there is no journal which is strictly dedicated to your research, since it is then easier for all interested readers to find it (this is the argument of Gabor Zolyomi). Another factor that might increase the importance of openness for your particular paper is targeting an audience that works outside of the most wealthy universities. Even in poorer EU countries, researchers face hardships in gaining access to some expensive journals. Thus, if your article deals with a field in which some institutions from less wealthy countries are active, you should pay more attention to openness to gain more citations.
4) Publish in a journal with an appropriate audience. Think not only about a journal’s prestige and popularity, but also about its audience. Who is your article written for? What is the most important journal for this particular audience? I am a sociologist, and the most important journal in my research work is not the highest ranked in the field of sociology. Usually, I read journals with a narrow thematic scope, and I see that they are also the places of publication for the most important researchers in my field, thus I would rather publish my article there, than in one of the top tier journals for the whole field, because in my opinion its easier to gain citation from an appropriate public. (Have a look at my interview with Antonio Facchetti).
5) Attend conferences and research meetings. This may help you to promote your work and search for new collaboration opportunities.
6) While writing your paper think about your readers and search engines. Choosing a good title and keywords is important, and should be done at an early stage of writing, not at the end. You should also write in an attractive way. For more information have a look here.
7) Run a blog, be present on social media. This may help you to gain citations and to search for new collaboration opportunities, but it will not replace attending conferences and meetings. For more information have a look here and here.
As you can see all the major points revolve around choosing a place to publish. Once again, it is a very important decision. Remember to spend some time on finding a good journal for you. It pays off.
Still having problems with gaining citations? Do not panic. Apply for your next job or funding opportunity and try to show the impact of your work in different ways: include the number of downloads of your top paper or database, mention your altmetrics score and the popularity of your blog (and have a look here).