Migrant academics more prolific than US colleagues but paid less

Foreign-born academics outperform US counterparts on numerous productivity measures, analysis shows

December 29, 2018
Source: Getty

Foreign-born researchers in the US produce more journal articles, conference papers and patents on average than their American peers but are still paid less, a study has found.

To assess whether foreign university staff members are more productive than those from the US, academics at Ohio State University and two Chilean institutions – the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and Universidad Mayor – examined the outputs and employment records of those who received PhDs from US universities between 1995 and 2003.

They concluded that foreign-born researchers “outperform their domestic counterparts in…measures of knowledge production”, according to the study, titled “Are foreign‑born researchers more innovative? Self‑selection and the production of knowledge among PhD recipients in the USA” and published in the Journal of Geographical Systems.

However, foreign-born academics are paid about $3,000 (£2,368) a year less – about 5 per cent less – than US scholars, and are about 50 per cent less likely to have tenure, the study says.

When the results were controlled to reflect academic disciplines (foreign-born academics are more likely to take a PhD in a science subject) and the prestige of the university they attended, higher productivity among foreign-born staff was still evident, the paper says.

On average, foreign-born staff published 20 per cent more journal articles, presented 12 per cent more papers, and had 45 per cent more patent applications and 74 per cent more patents granted than their “otherwise equal domestic counterparts over a five-year period”, the paper says.

The study – authored by Rodrigo Perez-Silva, Mark Partridge and William Foster – also appears to debunk the theory that levels of higher productivity might relate to the intention of gaining US citizenship.

In fact, foreign-born academics with US citizenship were the “most productive”, while non-US citizens with permanent residence were also “highly productive”.

In the case of foreign-born academics outperforming US scholars who attended similar universities, the study suggests that their higher productivity levels are not explained by these staff being brighter or better trained.

Instead, the authors suggest that the “self-selection” of foreign-born researchers may explain the difference.

As overseas graduate students are likely to incur higher costs than American students when studying at a US university, those with lower aptitude and motivation are less likely to follow this route – meaning that those who do are more likely to be a “better fit” for the PhD course than US applicants. In turn, they will “have, on average, a greater aptitude for scholarly productivity” and be “better matched” in the academic labour market after graduating, the paper says.

“Given that training received is unlikely to differ between foreign and domestic PhD recipients (with all of them attending US universities), the self-selection of the foreign-born would explain a significant share of the productivity differences,” the paper concludes.

As foreign-born PhD recipients are more productive, policies oriented to “attract and retain foreign-born researchers” should be promoted, the paper recommends, saying that the study’s results support the use of “merit-based” immigration policies in order to enhance innovation.

“Limiting [the inflow of foreign PhD students] could slow science creation in the short run, and more importantly harm the country’s competitiveness in the long run,” it adds.


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