Motivation and the ability to network have a far greater impact on research productivity than age, gender, job satisfaction, managerial support or teaching load.
That is the central conclusion of work by researchers from University College Dublin led by Jonathan Drennan, lecturer in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems.
Dr Drennan's team looked at the responses of almost 11,000 full-time academics from 12 European countries assembled for the Changing Academic Profession survey and the more recent data obtained by the Academic Profession in Europe: Responses to Societal Challenges (EUROAC) project.
After defining "research productivity" as "the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters completed" over a three-year period, the team set out to analyse the demographic, academic and institutional variables that best predict the high and low performers.
Although time spent working on research was unsurprisingly linked with research productivity, "teaching or administrative workloads were not found to be predictors across any of the 12 countries", according to a paper presented at the Higher Education and Social Change Final Conference in Berlin last month.
Job satisfaction and institutional factors such as "managerial support, managerial style (communication and collegiality) and infrastructural support related to research" seemed to matter only in a small minority of countries, while both age and gender were dwarfed by other factors.
Far more significant in predicting whether someone was likely to generate a steady stream of papers were "a stated preference for research over teaching and involvement in the wider research community".
Such involvement, as witnessed by "peer reviewing, membership of scientific committees and editorial positions", turned out to be "the only predictor evident across all countries and the strongest predictor for publication productivity in eight countries". National or international collaborations were also important factors in most countries.
Asked to unpack the findings in relation to age and gender, Dr Drennan told Times Higher Education that, while seniority was a factor, age per se was not, meaning that "a 25-year-old at lecturer grade and a 45-year-old at lecturer grade are probably at pretty much the same level of productivity". As for gender, Dr Drennan claimed that "there is not a fundamental discrepancy to be explained ...There is evidence that early career female academics publish less but they catch up and the differences disappear".
Yet if the fundamental drivers for research productivity are individual motivation and what amount to networking skills, do universities need to spend so much time and effort adjusting structures and incentives? Should they stop listening to gripes about teaching loads if the born researchers are going to keep delivering the goods anyway?
Dr Drennan was reluctant to offer recommendations to research managers but said he believed it was no longer the case that time spent on teaching would inevitably eat into time for research.
Developments such as collaborative teaching and online learning meant that "particularly at graduate level, those who teach are integrating their research with their teaching and the students are also coming up with innovative ideas", he said.
"There's a trend towards publishing with graduate students and graduates becoming involved in research teams. Though there may be differences between disciplines, teaching and research are not nearly as differentiated as they once were."