September 26, 2014 | James Hardcastle, Research Manager

Author-level metrics and the H-Index

In a previous post I wrote about journal-level citation metrics. This post will discuss the rise of article- and author-level metrics.

As tools such as Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar have become more widely accessible, it has become much easier to create metrics at the article level. This overcomes some of the major issues in using journal-level metrics to evaluate authors’ work. Instead of evaluating work based on the company it keeps in a journal, it is possible to evaluate the individual articles and furthermore aggregate these measures to the author level and above (research groups, institutions, funders, countries, etc.).

Author-level bibliometrics

Since the dawn of modern science, the simplest metric at the author level has been the number of papers published. Along with all author-level metrics it is complicated by multiple authorships:

  • Should only the first author be counted?
  • Should credit be split equally between authors?
  • Should a paper be counted once for each author listed?
  • What if there are 1000 authors on the papers?

As authorship can be a contentious issue, generally most measures allocate each author a count for each paper on which they are listed as an author, regardless of position on the author list or number of co-authors.

The other simple metric to calculate is total citations, which simply refers to the number of citations received by an author’s published work. These metrics either reward prolific authors or authors whose work has been very highly cited. As a compromise, various other metrics such as average (mean) citations per article can be used. However, as citation distributions are highly skewed this measure is not satisfactory. Instead, a median citation per article could be used, but this can be reduced by a long tail of uncited or poorly cited articles. Therefore a new metric was created.

The H-Index

The H-Index was defined by the physicist Hirsch in a 2005 paper in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. The H-Index is a relatively simply metric defined as:

“A scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each.”

Therefore to have an H-Index of 10 you must have published at least 10 papers that have each been cited 10 times or more. This has an advantage that is not skewed upwards by a small number of highly cited papers like mean citation per article count would be but also not skewed downwards by a long tail of poorly cited work. Instead it rewards researchers whose work is consistently well cited, although a handful of well-placed citations can have a major effect.

Issues with the H-Index

Although the basic calculation of the H-Index has been defined, it can still be calculated on various different databases or time-frames, giving different results. Normally, the larger the database, the higher the H-Index calculated from it. Therefore an H-Index taken from Google Scholar will nearly always be higher than one from Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed.

As the H-Index can be applied to any population of articles, to illustrate this I have calculated H-Indices or articles published since 2010 in the journal Health Psychology Review from three different sources:

  • Google Scholar: 19
  • Web of Science: 13
  • Scopus: 12

The same variability is found with author-level evaluations.

Like all citations metrics, the H-Index varies widely by field and a mediocre H-Index in the life sciences will be much higher than a very good H-Index in the social sciences. But because H-Indices have rarely been calculated systematically for large populations of researchers using the same methodology they cannot be benchmarked. The H-Index is also open to abuse via self-citations (although some self-citation is normal and legitimate, authors can strategically cite their own work to improve their own H-Index).

Alphabet soup

Since the H-Index was defined in 2005 numerous variants have been created, mostly making small changes to the calculation, such as the G-Index:

Given a set of articles ranked in decreasing order of the number of citations that they received, the g-index is the largest number such that the top g articles received (together) at least g2 citations.”

However, a paper published in Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research and Perspectives found that if you take the correlation of author rank by the various metrics they are all very highly related.

H index table

Source: Notes: Values on the diagonal (1.00) are omitted, values below the diagonal are the usual Pearson product-moment correlations, and values above the diagonal are Spearman rank-order correlations. Because values are rounded to two decimal places, an entry of 1.00 does not necessarily indicate perfect correlation.

Issues with citation metrics

All of the author-level metrics based on citations have issues related to the inherent nature of citations.

  • Citations can only ever go up.
  • Positive and negative citations are counted the same.
  • Citations rates are depend on subject.
  • Different research types have different citation profiles.
  • Only work included in the databases is counted.

The H-Index of a life-science researcher with a long publication history including review articles cannot be compared with a post-doctoral researcher in the life sciences nor with a senior researcher from another field.

Further, researchers who have published several review articles will normally have much higher citation counts than other researchers. Publishing books or giving conference papers which are not included in the Web of Science or Scopus to the same degree as journals means that some work is not counted when using these tools.


Although tools such as ORCID, Researcher ID, etc. are starting to help with disambiguating authors, the most common name in Scopus has more than 1,800 2013 articles associated with it. Though most authors can calculate their own author metrics easily, it requires a totally accurate publication list to create author-level metrics on a systematic basis as groups of researchers and ambiguous author names still cause an issue here.

Unlike journal-level citation metrics that mostly come from defined providers, author-level metrics are undefined in terms of time-frame, database, and type of research to be included. At the extreme end multiple authorships can cause problems, with so many authors sharing an equal amount of credit for single paper.

In reaction to some of these issues there has been a push by some in the science communication community to look beyond citations and usage. The growing and rapidly changing field of altmetrics will be covered in a future post.

Published: September 26, 2014 | Author: James Hardcastle, Research Manager | Category: Citations, impact and usage, Front page | Tagged with: