December 31, 2020

The H-Index and Its Role in the Publish or Perish Culture

If you’re an academic scholar in today’s world, you’ve heard of both the “publish or perish” philosophy to your research and the H-index’s role on your reputation. Both of these can increase stress and pressure on the researcher because of the competitive culture that the academic landscape has turned into. But with a greater understanding of the H-index and the reasoning behind publish or perish, it makes it easier to do your job well and ignore the external influences.

Entering the world of academics today as a researcher comes with significant expectations and the requirement that you be able to handle a multitude of responsibilities. Between instructional duties that require imparting knowledge, mentoring, and participating in institutional events and the “publish or perish” expectations of research, the academic scholar is constantly under layers of pressure.

Part of the pressure is alleviated once a researcher is able to develop a legitimate, respected scholarly reputation. But this takes time and consistency and is a complex mix of many different factors that the scholar doesn’t always have control over, such as the H-index measurement. By understanding what makes up these two crucial components of a scholar’s reputation - the H-index and the “publish or perish” expectation - researchers are more likely to be able to work with less pressure.

What Does “Publish or Perish” Really Mean?

The mindset of “publish or perish” can add significant stress to a researcher who takes it literally; as in, if they don’t publish innovative research regularly, their careers are likely to perish. However, this is taking the idea to an extreme level. In reality, the meaning behind this phrase is not quite as deadly to a career as it sounds.

When it comes to a “publish or perish” mindset, this tends to apply more to those researchers whose goal is to get into the top Ivy League institutions, the cream of the crop universities, and the highest level of research facilities where competition is fierce. In those cases, yes, publishing innovative and creative work regularly is one of the most important keys to getting a foot in the door to positions in these coveted places, and the way to keep your job once you manage to get it.

There are, however, many smaller institutions where academic professors are able to work in satisfactory careers where they integrate into the classroom life and focus on education, with research goals of furthering productivity and academic output. The research material, in these cases, could suffice as an interview, regular academic blog posts, or a newspaper article. Because the field of teaching is one where good instructors are desperately in need, it’s not difficult to find jobs in less-coveted institutions where the “publish or perish” mindset doesn’t exist in extremes. Researchers can also find work in private or government sectors without the expectation of instructional capacities, where they have more time to devote to innovative research and publishing.

Understanding the H-Index

While publishing isn’t a pressure for every researcher if they aren’t interested in prestigious positions, it does help one’s scholarly reputation. The data obtained through a scholar’s published work is measured using quantitative metrics like the h-index. Originally proposed in 2005 by J.E. Hirsch, this formula gives an estimate of the overall impact of a scientist’s research, cumulatively, judging the importance and significance of their work overtime. The h index looks at the citations in the scholar’s field versus how many citations other scholars in the same field have.

The h-index is considered to be beneficial because it takes the qualitative measurement of impact and makes it into a quantitative, measurable number. It looks beyond how many papers a researcher puts out and considers the actual quality of the papers instead. But the h-index is expected to be used in addition to other factors to help give the scholar his or her reputation.

There are drawbacks to the h-index that must be addressed, such as the fact that h values will be different across multiple fields. An average number of references in one field may not be the same as in another, and how many papers are typical in one area of research will not match that of another, greater area of study. Additionally, if a researcher puts out very papers but all are exemplary, the h-index doesn’t reflect the high impact because of the low ratio.

The Consequences of Working Under These Expectations

The field of academics has become highly competitive as government funding rewards the biggest impacting institutions and researchers. In these fields where researchers are expected to aid in the financing of the institution’s mission, pressure can be extremely high to publish innovative, creative, impactful papers. While many scholars are open to the promotional path publishing regularly puts them on, others are concerned about the temptation the pressure can lead to. Excessive publication of low-quality work, lack of citations, skirting the line of ethics, and biased reporting towards a preferred outcome are all legitimate complaints in the high-stakes academic research lifestyle.

The h-index was originally intended to reduce the pressure and bias of formulating reputations based on qualitative judgment, but it has, instead, opened an entirely new can of worms regarding self-citation, mirror journals, and other legal, but ethically questionable, practices.

Self-Reflect and Improve Your Reputation With Impactio

Citation indicators like the h-index aren’t going anywhere any time soon. They’ll continue to evolve, but the idea behind using them, and the publish or perish culture, to determine your scholarly impact is here to stay. As a scholar, it’s an important part of your job to watch these citation indicators through programs like Impactio.

By following your own indicators, you can improve your future work and keep an eye on things like citation buildup. The report feature in Impactio keeps track of all your relevant citation indicators in easy-to-understand breakdowns. You can adjust them as you prefer, keeping your reports up-to-date and selecting details about the impact your work is making and your trends. Don’t let the pressure of publishing or perish stress you - follow your indicators and use Impactio for professional results!

Tags H-Index Citations Publications Researchers
Jason Collins
Jason is a writer for many niche brands with experience “bringing stories to life” for both startups and corporate partners.

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