Materials Girl: Hey baby, what’s your h-index?

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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

We’re just getting to know each other, but your resume caught my eye and I might be looking to collaborate… How many papers have you published? What’s the typical impact factor of the journals those papers appear in? Or — to be Google Scholar-forward — what’s your h-index? At what rate do you publish? Are you first or corresponding author? Why should we get to know each other better? Is your CV worth a swipe right?

The potential questions regarding one’s publications are endless, and everyone knows that fateful metric by which a researcher is judged. The “publish or perish” approach to evaluating scientists is inescapable — and particularly of note for younger researchers at the beginning of their careers. As a postdoc working for an untenured professor, publication is of tantamount importance for both me and my PI. Those on the prowl for a job outside of academia, however, might find the importance of publication record to be less obvious. A colleague involved in government-run science/funding (e.g., U.S. Department of Energy) insists that 10–20 papers out of graduate school is the minimum number needed to prove one’s scientific worth and land a decent job. Another had the notion that collaborative, non-first author papers held more value, since institutions typically look for team players.

Naturally, the specifics of a position will dictate the need for a strong publishing record.  Regardless of this importance to a particular employer, however, there is an undeniable, strong community expectation to produce papers. Having a low paper count implies low productivity, but how accurate is it to correlate publication statistics with individual labor/intellect/talent? Out of all the graduate students I’ve encountered, the average number of publications is definitively in the single digits – and could be measured on one hand if only first authorship is considered.

So here’s the question: Is this judgement system realistic? My PhD advisor always insisted that Nature and Science papers would definitely come if I worked hard enough. Not intellect or inspiration — just pure, hard labor. However, sometimes a good publication arises from luck — be it a lucky result or experiment, the luck of being on a good project, the luck of having access to equipment or funding at the right time, etc. Labor and brilliance notwithstanding, even the best researcher may not flourish without a dash of good fortune.

No clear-cut right or wrong answers exist to these matters, and it would be interesting to hear TSC reader opinions. What do you think about scientists judging one another on publishing? How heavily scrutinized should an individual’s publication record be? Do you think that the current system is fair?