Scientists bust myth that academic productivity declines with age

In-depth examination of researchers’ career paths suggests few adhere to long-held stereotype that the young publish more

October 20, 2017
Old man stretching
Source: Rex
Unwearied: ‘average trends mask hugely idiosyncratic individual trajectories. I’m more productive now, nearing retirement, than I was when I was younger’

It is often thought that a young academic in any field publishes early and often, peaks after about five years, secures a permanent position and then gradually grows less productive until retirement.

But the idea that scholars produce less work as they age could be little more than an unhelpful myth, according to new evidence presented by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Examining the career paths of 2,453 tenure-track faculty members in 205 computer science departments across the US and Canada, researchers took into account more than 200,000 publications as data points.

While on average, the stereotypical “rapid-rise, gradual-decline” trajectory rang true, under closer analysis the common curve was found to be a “remarkably inaccurate” description of most professors’ careers.

In fact, a considerable number of academics started slowly before spiking in terms of publication output late in their careers. Others published steadily over time.

“What this study tells us is that productivity comes at various stages, and there are a lot of different ways to have a successful career as a scientist,” said the study’s main author, Samuel Way, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of computer science at CU Boulder.

Overall, about 20 per cent of academics conformed to the average path, but the other 80 per cent had much more varied productivity levels through their careers.

Nevertheless, the stereotypical curve trajectory has served as an “unofficial yardstick” for about 60 years, the authors added, influencing universities to hire young professors and even to push older academics towards retirement.

Commenting on the report, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Peter Lawrence, a Medical Research Council emeritus scientist at the University of Cambridge, said that such stereotypes were “unhelpful” and often out of date.

“These generalisations are very often false statistically, even if there are individuals who fit them,” he told Times Higher Education. “Because of the generalisation about scientists’ careers, it gets more and more difficult to get a job, even when there is evidence for an individual that they have struck a rich seam of discovery.”

A paper published by Concordia University in Canada last year received backlash for its claims that age had a negative effect on the quality of researchers’ publications. This paper, published in the journal Scientometrics, reported that the number of citations also declined over time, but critics said that the paper was indicative of age discrimination within research.

“Average trends mask hugely idiosyncratic individual trajectories,” said Gary Thomas, professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Birmingham, in response to the CU Boulder study.

“If I look at my own work, I’m much more productive now, approaching retirement, than I was when I was younger, and the work is more significant now – you can get a ‘view from the bridge’ as you gain experience and knowledge of the field.

“With accumulation comes perspective. So quality changes as well as quantity. In the early stages of my career, I would take a narrower and more cautious approach – trying to press the right buttons. Now, I’m more focused on what is important.”

The CU Boulder study also found scientists to be publishing significantly more papers overall, at an average rate of four a year compared with just one annually in 1970 – a trend likely to reflect the growth of more collaborative work and a move towards publishing more incremental findings, the authors concluded.

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