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Vanity Index

The scientists at a local research institute (that shall remain nameless) spent the last couple of weeks calculating their h-indices. Some of them are probably still doing it.

While the impetus for this research came from the top — they were asked to submit their h-index, citations and total impact factor every year for the last five years — it seems that many if not all took a real interest in calculating their own h-indices and everybody else’s, too. And comparing them, of course.

The h-index was of course at the centre of discussions. Few of the scientists knew the definition of the thing, and often misunderstood the definition even when it was explained to them. Not that it is particularly difficult — your h-index is the largest number n such that you have n papers with n or more citations each.  The way to calculate this is to arrange one’s papers in descending order of citations. Then your h-index is n if at the n-th place in this list you find a paper with n or more citations, and at the (n+1)st place you find  a paper with less than (n+1) citations. So if your h-index is 10, that means you  have 10 papers with 10 or more citations, but not 11 papers with 11 or more citations.

Of course you need to know the citations of your papers in order to do this. For high-energy physics, gravitation and cosmology or astrophysics, there is SPIRES. Or you could go to Google Scholar. There are also a couple of expensive options, the ISI Web of Science (WoS) and SCOPUS, neither of which may be accessed without an institutional subscription of about Rs.10 lakhs per year.

Of these SPIRES is undoubtedly the best in many ways, if — and that is indeed a big if — you stick to only high-energy physics, and maybe gravitation and cosmology. Astrophysics was included in their database comparatively recently, I am not sure how well astro papers are covered. But if your paper is cited by mathematicians — not particularly unusual — that citation is unlikely to get into SPIRES. Google records almost all papers and citations (yes, `almost’), but records many things more than once, so it is considered rather unreliable. WoS does not record citations from conference papers or unpublished preprints. I have not used SCOPUS, but I have been told by those who have that it is not better (in the sense of being more inclusive) than WoS.

The bosses generally prefer WoS, because a) they don’t do high-energy physics, and b) like many people they believe that if you pay lots of money for something, what you get is worth the money you pay for it. What they want is not just a number, they want to feel good about themselves, and they want something to boast about. If they have a high h-index or citation count, they feel comfortable advising the (relatively) junior scientists what they should work on, with whom, and so on, without being told to jump into the nearest body of water. Of course they are mostly safe from such abuse anyway, since the Indian middle class is unduly polite to people in power, and service rules of government scientists can be used to take disciplinary action against those who dare utter such things. In fact at the institute of this story the scientists were threatened with disciplinary action if they failed to submit the numbers. So the bosses don’t bat an eyelid when told that they have to squander millions of rupees of public money in order to get a boost to their vanity.

And they groom the next rung of scientists into this habit of comparing their h-indices the lengths of their citation lists.

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  1. July 26, 2009 at 9:19 am
  2. July 27, 2009 at 3:20 am
  3. April 23, 2011 at 6:29 am

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