Research collaboration ‘key for female career progression’

Increasing number of co-authors is linked to speedier career progression, especially for women, says Royal Society paper

September 8, 2021

Female researchers are markedly more likely to become principal investigators if they publish frequently with a wide range of co-authors, an analysis shows.

According to a paper published by the UK’s Royal Society, both men and women are more likely to become research group leaders if they collaborate widely throughout their career – with those publishing with a more diverse cross-section of co-authors also significantly cutting the time it took to achieve this promotion.

But the positive effect of collaboration is much more noticeable for female advancement in academia, with researchers also noting that scholars who frequently publish with the same co-authors are more likely to face a “shortened career” in academia.

Focusing on a cohort of 935 academics who spoke at three ecology conferences held in the early 1990s, of whom 298 were women, the study tracked their careers and publication patterns over the next three decades. Of these scholars, 701 later became principal investigators, of whom 187 were women and 521 were men.

Researchers of both sexes who had more co-authors were more likely to become PIs, but women saw a bigger impact from publishing with more co-authors in terms of a longer academic career – with that trend accounting for a 62 per cent bigger effect than it did with men.

“Women showed greater benefits than men from collaborating more, and from having stronger collaborations,” says the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on 8 September.

Nicholas Horrocks, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, who co-authored the paper with University of Helsinki scholar Jessica van der Wal and University of Cape Town researcher Rose Thorogood, told Times Higher Education that the study arose from a conversation with his co-authors about why some academics’ careers endured and others’ did not.

“We were thinking about why some people have really long-lasting academic careers while other excellent researchers seem to disappear,” said Dr Horrocks, adding that the researchers were “interested to see if there is a strategy to improve your chances of staying in academia, as persisting in this sector is really difficult”.

The study underlined the need for creating a broad and diverse academic network, rather than becoming reliant on a small group of scholars for publication, said Dr Horrocks.

“Some people are put off by the challenges of collaborating or the sense that it will dilute what you do as an individual researcher,” he said. However, the study highlighted the “importance of collaborating with a variety of people”.

“Publishing with the same people for a long period of time can be a good thing; but you should also feel free to make new connections and branch out to work with others,” he added of the positive effects of wide-ranging academic collaborations.

While the pandemic had made it more difficult in some respects to initiate new research collaborations, the paper’s own provenance – produced by researchers in the UK, Finland and South Africa – showed that it was possible, added Dr Horrocks.

“Technology has made it much easier to collaborate – you don’t need to be in the same room any longer, which is why three researchers across several continents have been able to produce this paper during a pandemic,” he said.

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