The chicken and the egg problem of academic productivity

TitleProductivity, prominence, and the effects of academic environment
Authors: Samuel F. Way, Allison C. Morgan, Daniel B. Larremore, and Aaron Clauset
First author’s institution: University of Colorado Boulder
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, April 2019, 201817431

There is widespread perception that elite universities such as the Ivy League provide a “better” education than less prestigious schools; why else would celebrities need to bribe their children into these elite schools? Perhaps this is because academics at prestigious universities tend to publish more, get cited more, and win more awards than their colleagues at less prestigious universities. However, many academics who currently work at prestigious universities also did their doctoral training at prestigious universities, which could suggest that being trained at a prestigious university does offer improved career outcomes. This presents a chicken and the egg type problem for academic productivity: are scholars at prestigious universities more productive because they went to prestigious doctoral schools which helped them land a prestigious position or because they happen to work at a prestigious place, regardless of their training?

To investigate this question, the authors of today’s paper looked at doctorate to faculty transitions of 2,453 tenure-track faculty at all 205 PhD-granting computer science departments in the United States and Canada spanning 1970-2011. The authors also collected complete records of these graduates’ scholarly output up to 2017, which included over 200,000 publications and 7.4 million citations. To quantify the output, the authors defined productivity of a scholar as the number of publications published and prominence as the number of new citations per year. Since they wanted to understand how a scholar’s work environment affected their productivity and prominence, the authors looked specifically at the 5 years before each scholar was hired for their tenure-track position and the first 5 years of their tenure track position. This would also allow the researchers to compare the influence of the training environment vs the current work environment. In order to quantify prestige, the authors ranked the doctoral universities among their ability to place their graduates as faculty.

Since multiple graduates from the same university would likely be hired at different universities and graduates from different universities would be hired at the same university, there was a natural set-up that would allow the authors to compare training and working environments. If the doctoral institution mattered more then their current institutions, scholars who went earned their PhDs from more prestigious universities should be more productive than those who earned their PhDs from a less prestigious university, regardless of where they were hired. Alternatively, if the current workplace matters more, scholars hired at more prestigious universities should be more productive than scholars at less prestigious universities, regardless of where they earned their PhDs.

So what did the authors find? First, for scholars who worked at similarly prestigious universities, the individual with a more prestigious training did not publish more in the first 5 years after being hired than the individual who had a less prestigious training. However, the individual with a more prestigious training did receive more citations.

On the other hand, for faculty who had similarly prestigious doctoral trainings, the individual who was hired at the more prestigious university tended to publish 5 more papers and receive a median of 112 more citations in their first 5 years of their tenure track position than those who were hired at a less prestigious university (figure 1).

Figure 2
Figure 1: Figures A and B show the publications and citations respectively of faculty who work at the same institution but have different doctoral training. Figures C and D show publications and citations respectively of faculty who had the same doctoral training but now work at different institutions. (Fig 2 in paper)

Further, faculty at institutions in top 20% of prestige produced 17 more papers and received 824 more citations than faculty at institutions in the bottom 20% and 9 more papers and 543 more citations than faculty at the middle 20% of institutions. Thus, it appears that where a scholar works has a larger effect than were they were trained.

If it is actually the case that scholars at more prestigious universities publish and get cited more, there must be an explanation for it. The authors suggested four reasons: the more prestigious universities may 1) hire faculty who are already more productive, 2) have higher expectations regarding publishing for their faculty, 3) only retain more productive faculty, or 4) facilitate productivity by providing a better work environment.

The authors began by eliminating the first possibility by finding that there wasn’t a correlation between the productivity of a scholar before they were hired and the prestige of the university they were hired by, suggesting that prestigious universities are not hiring more productive scholars.

Second, the authors found that prestigious universities do not appear to have higher publishing expectations either since less than half of the scholars at prestigious universities were closer to the median productivity of their current department after 5 years than they were to the median productivity of their doctoral department. If the prestigious universities had higher expectations, the scholars should have been publishing at rates closer to their current department (that is, adjusting to those expectations), not the department they earned their PhD in.

Third, the authors found no evidence that prestigious universities were only retaining highly productive scholars as the retention rate was similar across all institutions, regardless of prestige (figure 2). If prestigious universities were not rehiring less productive faculty, they should have had a lower retention rate, which was not observed.

Figure 3
Figure 2: Fraction of faculty who were not retained by department prestige. The dotted line is the average across all universities in the study (figure 3 in paper).

With the other three possibilities removed, the authors concluded that the reason scholars at prestigious universities publish more papers and are cited more is due to the work environment itself. The authors found that the number of publications of a faculty correlates with the number of doctoral students per faculty in the department and the number of non-tenure-track research faculty, meaning working in a larger department tends to be associated with a higher productivity. However, the researchers found that as the number of administrative and support staff and undergraduate students increased, the number of publications tended to decrease, suggesting there is an ideal size of a department to maximize productivity.

The key takeaways from the paper are then that the prestige of the university where a scholar attains a tenure track position determines the number of papers they publish more than where they earned their PhD. Nevertheless, the number of citations is associated with the prestige of the university, regardless of whether it is the doctoral institution or the institution where the scholar has a tenure track position. However, as scholars with prestigious training tend to get hired into prestigious faculty positions, it would be wrong to say that the training institution doesn’t matter, only that it is less important than where the scholar is ultimately hired.

Read the noncommercial and educational reuse permissions for the figures here.


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