As researchers get older the quality of their publications drops, a study has found, suggesting that more funding should be given to promising younger scientists.
This latest research contains further bad news for older scholars: it found that they work less well in teams, and after around 12 years into their careers, academics tend to author fewer papers.
These findings add to criticisms that research funding is too heavily concentrated among older scientists, with one Nobel prizewinner telling universities: “put more of your research spend into your under-forties”.
The paper, “How to boost scientific production? A statistical analysis of research funding and other influencing factors”, published earlier this month in Scientometrics, looked at researchers in Canada from 1996 to 2010.
It discovered that career age “negatively affects the quality of published works, which means that as the career of the researchers progresses they tend to produce on average lower quality papers”, as measured by citations.
In addition, it found that scientists authored more papers per year as they got older, until around 12 years into their career, at which point their output started to drop – although their funding continued to grow.
This indicates that younger researchers with “evidence of a great potential” should be given a chance, rather than continuing to back older faculty “whose scientific performance is already ‘beyond the zenith’”, the paper says.
The study also discovered that the bigger a researcher’s team, the more productive they were and the more citations their papers got. However, this was true only for younger researchers. “As the career age of researchers increases, working in larger teams reduces their productivity and the quality of their papers,” it found.
Co-author Ashkan Ebadi, a postdoctoral associate in the biomedical engineering department of the University of Florida, said the age-related drop in quality and frequency of publications was hard to explain, but that “ambition might be one of the key factors”.
“Younger researchers might be more ambitious in order to prove themselves in the scientific community, or to find a full-time faculty position,” he said.
In October last year, Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt – who has just taken over as vice-chancellor of the Australian National University – complained that institutions direct most of their money to academics over 50, despite the fact that the “apex of productivity” for researchers is usually far earlier.
Responding to this latest study, James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that, partly as a result of squeezed funding, UK research councils in recent years had given more of their money to senior principal investigators and less to early career researchers. This “reinforces the danger of creating an imbalance in research funding in the UK and elsewhere”.
But he cautioned against “sliding into ageist generalisations based on citation data” and added that “any move to recast funding patterns based on age would be foolish” and discriminatory. Senior researchers’ time may be spent in crucial management positions, he said, and added: “The research system is more than just a machine for generating citations.”