Of all the statistical factors that are used for judging publication record, the h-index seems to be the most commonly used

Wikipedia says

Hirsch suggested (with large error bars) that, for physicists, a value for h of about 12 might be typical for advancement to tenure (associate professor) at major research universities. A value of about 18 could mean a full professorship, 15–20 could mean a fellowship in the American Physical Society.

I am an organic chemistry with an h-index of 16. I assume physics should be similar to (organic) chemistry. I am now applying for a tenure-track position.
I mean to be overqualified for research funds, academic and scientific honors, etc.


  • How important is the Hirsch index (h-index)?
  • How much is the h-index really relied upon?
  • Can the h-index be used to categorize yourself?
  • Can I really set a goal that by reaching h-index 20, I am at the level of fellows of my professional society?
  • Can the h-index be used to indicate whether I am ahead of my rivals?
  • Can we claim something by h-index or is it just a number?
  • What should be the h-index of assistant/associate/full professor in chemistry to be a leader of his own rank?
  • 6
    It is just a number. Arguably more useful than raw citation count, but still it is a very crude quantification of an academic's capabilities. Commented May 1, 2015 at 14:25
  • 3
    Consider a colleague with an h-index of 5. Each of her 5 papers was cited over 500 times. Do you think she is a less accomplished scientist?
    – Bitwise
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 14:51
  • 10
    "h-index is the most important factor for judging publications" - What? No it's not. Citation needed. Ideally publications should be judged by a substantive evaluation of their merits and contributions, not just some stupid number.
    – D.W.
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 18:55
  • 3
    Popularity ≠ importance.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 21:46
  • 3
    Ahead of your "rivals"? Seriously? Commented May 2, 2015 at 2:59

4 Answers 4


As with all bibliometrics, the h-index is indicative at best. There is no magic number that says "now give this person a promotion", but if you have an h-index twice that of your colleagues, it might suggest something interesting.

If you really want to use the h-index to see how you compare to other organic chemists, why not look at the h-index of your colleagues, collaborators, or of researchers at the department you're applying to? You will already have a sense of their relative position, you'll be familiar with their work, and it'll help you get a sense of what the h-index might mean in your specific field - as well as the amount it varies between individuals you'd think of as comparable.

(Make sure to calculate all h-indexes using the same citation data, though. You'll get confusing results if some use Web of Science data and some Google Scholar...)


I'm in physics. I hit an h (as computed by inSpire) of 16 while I was still a postdoc, and I was running low compared to my colleagues in the same sub-field (experimental particle physics) whose careers were going ahead faster than mine. On the other hand, most of my theory colleagues at a similar place in their careers were far behind me in h.

Lessons: (A) It might have meaning in comparing two people in essentially the same sub-discipline, but you simply can't make comparisons across narrowly constructed field boundaries. (B) The numbers in the Wikipedia article are too tightly constrained and not broadly applicable.

If you insist on using bibliometrics to compare candidates you need to rate each one in terms of their progress relative their peers as closely defined as possible. That is a lot of work, so it is not for lazy people.

  • Though I agree with the general point, isn't experimental particle physics the discipline where papers with thousands of authors are common? Typical H-indexes vary by discipline but this would be an extreme case. Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 6:06

Indeed it differs from one field to another. I think the only way you can know how high an h-index of a successful academic should be, is to examine the h-index of academics that you already know to be successful.

As for the logic behind the h-index, from http://mkhamis.com/blog/whats-an-h-index/

So why is this a better way to evaluate the impact of an academic or a venue than simply counting the number of publications or the number of citations? Well, if it was based on the number of publications, you could just publish a lot of papers at venues that accept everything.. If it was based on the number of citations, you could have 1k citations because of a small contribution to someone else’s paper, that resulted in you being a co-author. In the latter situation, it could be that your impact is not strong after all, perhaps the rest of your publications have very few citations (or none). If that was your only publication, your h-index would be 1.


The first giveaway is "with large error bars". The implication is that there's a weak correlation between career advancement and h-index. Even quite closely related fields will have different publishing patterns, for example:

  • The typical size of groups working on a project (~length of author list affecting number of papers published per author)
  • Whether the journal(s) most popular in the field prefer a few long papers or quick publication of results (affecting the number of papers per project)
  • Those journals' authorship standards.
  • The typical referencing style of a discipline -- every related piece of work, just those actively discussed or somewhere in between. This may also be affected by reviewers' expectations/demands and is likely to lead to more citations in work on the boundary of disciplines.
  • How well-indexed the main publications are in your field, by a particular tool (Mine differs significantly depending on whether I ask Google scholar or ResearcherID. This is in a field where journals are the main route to publication. It may indicate how reliable the calculation is.)

So h-index should be closer to a game than a benchmark, and therefore should be of little-to-no relevance in hiring decisions. Besides, the more widely these sorts of index are relied upon, the more people will get onto author lists, and the more self/buddy citations will occur. I don;t mean anything that clearly crosses ethical boundaries, just the error margin in whether someone's contribution is worthy of authorship or citation.

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