Archive for August 4, 2011

H-indices and how academic publishing has changed: Feynman and Einstein just aren’t that impressive anymore

There’s an interesting list of the computer scientists with the top “h-indices.”  An h-index is a metric for the productivity of researchers and impact of publications.  There are 500 computer scientists with an h-index of 40 or higher on that list.  I know that h-indices get discussed in every promotion and tenure meeting I’ve been at for several years now.

Google now has a “Citations” feature where famous scientists’ h-indices and citation records are published.  Richard Feynman has an h-index of 37.  Albert Einstein has an h-index of 44.  37 might not earn Feynman a full professor status at some academic departments today.  I know lots of those folks with h-indices over 44, but I don’t think any of them are household names more than Einstein’s.

Maybe this gap between measurable-impact and perceived-impact says something about just how valuable the h-index is for measuring impact and productivity.  The h-index assumes that impact can be measured in terms of (a) publishing a lot and (b) having lots of people reference what you publish.  It’s inherently incestuous — academic impact  matters in terms of academic citations.  A best-selling book that millions buy and thousands talk about does not count towards an h-index — it only matters in terms of who cites it.  Blogs and other new media, which may have impact (on thinking, on actions), are not included in h-index calculations.

Or maybe this observation says something about how academic publishing has changed.  Feynman and Einstein have had a great impact, and neither (a) needed to publish as much as today’s scientists to achieve their  impact nor (b) were expected to publish as much as faculty today.  Maybe this h-index gap is more reflective of our desire to quantify everything, than of our desire to measure real and significant impact.

August 4, 2011 at 9:22 am 17 comments


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