We are very grateful to Sasso (2011) for her commentary on our original piece on h-indexes (Thompson & Watson 2010) and to see that this is an issue that is having an impact outside the UK – albeit that the impact on Italian nursing may be negative. Clearly, we are advocates for the use of the h-index to measure individual academic performance. It is not perfect – no citation based measures are – but it is less easy to manipulate than total citations and provides a number that assesses contribution to a field, through readership and citation of a person’s work, over a relatively long period. Our purpose in writing about this in the first place and subsequently (Hunt et al. 2011) has been to try to develop some norms for our subject and also to begin to make international comparisons. As both our papers show, h-indexes of greater than 10 are very rare among nursing academics – even long-established nursing professors – with only a handful exceeding 20.
In the above light, the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research declaration – reported by Sasso (2011)– that government research funding will only be awarded to those with h-indexes 25 or above is likely to be very damaging to nursing. In the same vein, it is a ludicrous declaration, as nursing will not be alone in having few people with an h-index of 25 or above. As originally conceived by Hirsch (2005), an academic in physics would be doing well to have an h-index unit for each year of academic activity. Using this criterion, only academics with at least 25 years experience would be eligible for Italian research funding, albeit that there are some more highly citing subjects such as medicine. This will skew the allocation of funding to those in the middle years of their career; cutting off people at the start and providing no incentive to those nearer the end of their careers in low-citing subjects who will never achieve an h-index of 25.
As Sasso (2011) points out, and in accordance with Jackson et al. (2009) and Nolan et al. (2008), such an institutionalisation of the use of h-indices will lead to some unhealthy activity associated with increasing citations in such a way that they deliberately increase h-index. Foremost, this will be fruitless but all absorbing activity because of the very intractability of the h-index: to increase your h-index by one unit at any level requires that all the papers below the one contributing to the increase have been cited at least as may times as the one ‘on the cusp’. In other words, if you have an h-index of 10 based on the top 10 of your cited papers having been cited 10 times each and no more, then you are required to have a further 11 citations equally spread across all those papers – with citations to any lower cited papers making no contribution – before your h-index will shift. Imagine the effort required to, for example, double your h-index.
Therefore, h-indexes certainly have a place and there is a case, for example, for using them in promotions within universities along with a range of other performance indicators. There is no case for giving them priority of place in the allocation of research funding.