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To optimize or not to optimize one's h-index – that is the question…

Dorch, Bertil; Wien, Charlotte

The h-index is an author-level metric that attempts to measure both the productivity and the citation impact of scholarly publications. When proposing the h-index in his frequently cited 2005 paper, Hirsch stressed that the index could “never give more than a rough approximation to an individual’s multifaceted profile”. Despite Hirsch’s original reservations, the h-index is indeed a very popular, and relatively simple measure. While simplicity may be the main reason for its popularity, it may at the same time be its vulnerability: A simple measure cannot incorporate the entire complexity of scholarly communication, or of the profile of an academic career.

Our point of departure differs from the vast body of literature discussing the h-index, criticizing its merits, and/or suggesting alternative measures. We accept the existence, and use of the h-index, but are critical towards it being used as an impact indicator on its own. We focus on how individual researchers can in principle strategically optimize their own h-index, and on the strategies used by such “high h-index researchers”.

To investigate researcher behaviour, we extracted the publication data of 75 researchers affiliated with the Department of Clinical Research at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). We created scatter plots of their publications and citations and identified the outliers as either high h-index researchers, or low h-index researchers. Semi-structured qualitative research interviews were conducted with high and low h-index researchers to extract their respective publication strategies (if any). Indications are that the high h-index researchers reflect on their performance measures, and work strategically with increasing their own performance in accordance with such measures, while the low h-index researchers are less conscious about such measures. In our paper, we describe the differences between the two groups and discuss the implications of our findings. 

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