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Margin Notes

Age and research productivity


An interesting study missed my notice when a pre-publication version was posted on the Web last fall. However, the full, peer-reviewed article, “The Effects of Aging on Researchers’ Publication and Citation Patterns” is now available in the journal PLoS ONE and is well worth a look.

The study, by researchers at Université du Québec à Montréal, looked at the productivity of researchers as a function of age using a sample of more 6,000 university professors in Quebec. In a nutshell, the paper found that “active” professors in the science disciplines – that is, those who maintain an active research program – hit their stride at around age 50 and keep their productivity at a high level until their retirement, even up to age 70. The results “show clearly that productivity and impact are not a simple and declining function of age,” the authors write.

The study also found that older professors tend to publish fewer first-authored papers and that their names tend to move “closer to the end of the list of co-authors” as they age. “At this point, you’re usually the head of the lab. Your team goes to you for ideas but you play a different role,” commented co-author Yves Gingras, quoted in University World News.

The findings have science policy implications, the authors continue. As countries such as Canada re-evaluate policies on mandatory retirement, “the fact that older researchers still play an effective role in the production of high impact papers cannot be neglected.”

The journal Nature ran an article on the study last fall. That article is available only to subscribers or for a fee, but the comments to the article are viewable and highlight a lively debate between young researchers and their well-established older peers – i.e., is the research productivity of older researchers accomplished on the backs of hard-working graduate students and postdocs? One commentator writes, for example: “[The authors] don’t seem to consider that older professors have larger research groups, i.e. more underlings to actually write the papers.” Another counters: “The advantages that older scientists can bring to an organization are many not least of which include helping to mentor the next generation of excellent scientists.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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