Quantified academia

At a conference dinner a few years ago, my dinner companion asked me ‘what’s your h-index?’ At the time I was blissfully unaware of my exact number (a key indicator of my lowly academic status) so my companion googled me on the spot. Our conversation was short-lived (I didn’t measure up).

For those in the dark, the h-index is a metric that measures an author’s scholarly output and citations. If you have an h-index over 100, as in the comic below, that means you have published over 100 papers that have each been cited or referenced over 100 times.


Academic work is increasingly subject to the measurement of defined metrics (e.g. specific annual targets for research funding, number of publications and citations, grant income). Early career and aspiring academics know that metrics matter. In my research with colleagues, this awareness is consistent across institutions, career stages, disciplines, roles and positions—and it is shaping beliefs, behaviours and goals in the measured university.

To put this another way: you can’t get away with not knowing your h-index anymore.

Welcome to quantified academia.

Here’s your plan: steady employment and a continuous track record in research and teaching. The “unbroken” career path of the “ideal academic” (to use Thornton’s (2013) phrase). Moving from PhD, through a post-doctoral  appointment, on to a tenured Lecturer appointment and Associate Professor promotion. A series of high quality publications in high impact factor journals. Lots of citations. A large external grant. Research students, international conferences, books, more large grants, more impactful publications, community and industry engagement. Ideally within five or ten years. Let’s add work/life balance to that list.

Here’s the reality: the academic ‘precariat’ (Standing, 2011; Ivancheva, 2015). The terms to describe this proliferate: the ‘‘postdoctoral treadmill” (Edwards, Bexley & Richardson, 2010), the “tenuous periphery” (Kimber, 2003), the “frustrated career” (Gottschalk & McEachern, 2010), “academic aspirants” (May, Strachan, Broadbent & Peetz, 2011). Uncertainty, discontent. To use the words of participants in our research— feeling miserable, embittered, shattered, suffering, isolated, worn out, swamped, stressed, and dissatisfied. A growing sense of having been complicit in a dupe.

So, who are you beyond your metrics? How can you bring about unbecoming a quantified academic?

Here is a great start: Producing Moments of Pleasure within the Confines of an Academic Quantified Self from Honan, Henderson and Loch (2015):

I am produced in numbers, in codes that confine and constrain me…  Numbers matter! They have become the singular discourse through which I can be recognised as acceptable (Bok, 2003), and clearly my numbers don’t add up … I submitted myself to a process of being measured and quantified. A three-year research plan carefully detailed my publications, grants, PhD supervisions along  with a statement addressing the quality of my research achievements. This plan was then judged by a panel to determine if I met the university’s classification for “research active”. I did not meet the benchmark to be classified “research active”.

And the companion video to the paper:

They end the paper with this sentence: “We will find time/space to produce moments of pleasure while residing in the confines of an academic quantified self.”

There are ways to have fun with numbers. I played with ImpactStory, an altmetric measurement tool, while writing this post. It offers celebratory gems such as: “Congratulations! You are in the top 50%!” (More thoughts on being good enough in a future post). Beyond the numbers and the focus on individual achievements, it’s working with people that brings the greatest joy: teaching, writing, and small talk.

9 thoughts on “Quantified academia

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