Blast Off!

This post is about metrics and specifically the H-index. It will probably be the first of several on this topic.

I was re-reading a blog post by Alex Bateman on his affection for the H-index as a tool for evaluating up-and-coming scientists. He describes Jorge Hirsch’s H-index, its limitations and its utility quite nicely, so I won’t reiterate this (although I’ll probably do so in another post). What is under-appreciated is that Hirsch also introduced the m quotient, which is the H-index divided by years since the first publication. It’s the m quotient that I’ll concentrate on here. The TL;DR is: I think that the H-index does have some uses, but evaluating early career scientists is not one of them.

Anyone of an anti-metrics disposition should look away now.

Alex proposes that the scientists can be judged (and hired) by using m as follows:

  • <1.0 = average scientist
  • 1.0-2.0 = above average
  • 2.0-3.0 = excellent
  • >3.0 = stellar

He says “So post-docs with an m-value of greater than three are future science superstars and highly likely to have a stratospheric rise. If you can find one, hire them immediately!”.

From what I have seen, the H-index (and therefore m) is too noisy for early stage career scientists to be of any use for evaluation. Let’s leave that aside for the moment. What he is saying is you should definitely hire a post-doc who has published ≥3 papers with ≥3 citations each in their first year, ≥6 with ≥6 citations each in their second year, ≥9 papers with ≥9 in their third year…

Do these people even exist? A candidate with 3 year PhD and a 3 year postdoc (6 would mean ≥18 papers with ≥18 citations each! In my field (molecular cell biology), it is unusual for somebody to publish that many papers, let alone accrue citations at that rate*.

This got me thinking: using Alex’s criteria, how many stellar scientists would we miss out on and would we be more likely to hire the next Jan Hendrik Schön. To check this out I needed to write a quick program to calculate H-index by year (I’ll describe this in a future post). Off the top of my head I thought of a few scientists that I know of, who are successful by many other measures, and plotted their H-index by year. The dotted line shows a constant m of 1,  “average” by Alex’s criteria. I’ve taken a guess at when they became a PI. I have anonymised the scholars, the information is public and anyone can calculate this, but it’s not fair to identify people without asking (hopefully they can’t recognise themselves – if they read this!).

This is a small sample taken from people in my field. You can see that it is rare for scientists to have a big m at an early stage in their careers. With the exception of Scholar C, who was just awesome from the get-go, panels appointing any of these scholars would have had trouble divining the future success of these people on the basis of H-index and m alone. Scholar D and Scholar E really saw their careers take-off by making big discoveries, and these happened at different stages of their careers. Both of these scholars were “below average” when they were appointed as PI. The panel would certainly not have used metrics in their evaluation (the databases were not in wide use back then), probably just letters of recommendation and reading the work. Clearly, they could identify the potential in these scientists… or maybe they just got lucky. Who knows?!

There may be other fields where publication at higher rates can lead to a large m but I would still question the contribution of the scientist to the papers that led to the H-index. Are they first or last author? One problem with the H-index is that the 20th scientist in a list of 40 authors gets the same credit as the first author. Filtering what counts in the list of articles seems sensible, but this would make the values even more noisy for early stage scientists.


*In the comments section, somebody points out that if you publish a paper very early then this affects your m value. This is something I sympathise with. My first paper was in 1999 when I was an undergrad. This dents my m value as it was a full three years until my next paper.

The post title is taken from ‘Blast Off!’ by Rivers Cuomo from ‘Songs from the Black Hole’ the unreleased follow-up to Pinkerton.


3 responses

  1. The other problem i see with this, is that even if the field acknowledges that someone did great work, citations still lag. Lets say you publish a brilliant paper in year 2 of your postdoc (because you are so awesome you got it done and published in a year) then you only have a year to collect those citations. All the papers that saw your great work, and cite it, still need to get published to increase your h-index. I think this therefore too highly weights your graduate career, which i suspect is less predictive of independent success than your postdoctoral career.

    1. Yes. Great point Dave. Citations are slow. I guess we could monitor downloads or introduce upvotes v downvotes for a proxy of how good/useful/impactful a paper is. My feeling is that H and m are only useful for people 10 years or so after their first paper.

  2. […] to work well. The H-index and G-index calculations were automated (previously sort-of-described here), as was most of the plot generation. The inspiration for the colour coding is from the 2013 […]

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