They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Age-based stereotypes exist, even in scientific communities. But is age related to research productivity – and, if so, to what extent?
The relationship between age and productivity is not a simple one to quantify. Older workers are assumed to be less effective and industrious than their younger colleagues when it comes to more physical tasks (1)(2). But what about science in particular?
In scientific communities, opinions on the net effect of age on productivity are varied. Several factors influence the productivity rate of researchers or academics; experience, health status, position, rank, and many more. It also begs the questions: what exactly is “productivity” and how do we measure it? In academic communities, it is often measured by the number of publications, along with the number of self-excluded citations and the h-index; the former relating to quantity and the latter to the quality and impact of the work. Do older scientists publish less or more? It is difficult to make an estimation – the determinants of individual productivity are extremely complex and I doubt whether typical metrics are in any way useful. However, I can say that authorship is not always directly related to actual productivity.
Perhaps rather than trying to guess the productivity of individuals, it is more useful to reflect on the “typical” path of a scientist’s career. In short, it can take a long time to get to the top. On the path to recognition, I have witnessed three typical turning points in the career of academics; the first occurs at around the age of 35-40 years, where researchers are expected to step up their productivity to reach a higher position. A second inflection point comes at the age of 50-55, when the rate of productivity can reach a plateau or decrease slightly (3).
The third turning point, I believe, comes when researchers are approaching retirement age. As researchers move up the stratified hierarchy of science, recognition reaches a peak, leading to collaboration with more productive groups, greater success in gaining access to funding and more likely publication in scientific journals with a higher impact – all boosting perceived productivity. However, there is another trend in this age bracket; older professors publish far fewer first-authored papers and instead move to the end of the list of co-authors, as they are more likely to be the leaders of their own groups.
No one can deny that with time, physical power decreases. In addition, technological developments and innovations are not always easily integrated by older scientists. On the other hand, a significant number of older scientists stay active in research, keep their productivity at a high level until their retirement and continue to inspire the young, still playing an effective role in the production of high impact papers. Indeed, if one is able to inspire 10 or more team members to be more efficient (while striving for high quality), the overall effect is an increase in productivity for the group, perhaps far outweighing the potential of a single individual.
So are older scientists more productive than their younger peers? I would argue that the most important aspect, whatever the age of the scientist, is the degree of satisfaction that they gain from collaboration with others – and, even more important, their passion for furthering research. And I don’t believe either of those aspects have anything to do with how old you are. There are more than a few examples of scientists – young and old – who have simply lost interest; they require a change in attitude or should consider an alternative profession...
All scientific research relies on collaboration – and so researchers of all ages need to play a significant role in its dynamic. With understanding on both sides, it’s a multi-way process; when we are surrounded by young people – eager students in academia or dynamic young scientists in research institutes or industry – it can be easier for us to maintain a “youthful” outlook; in turn, younger colleagues can benefit from the great experience, knowledge and tenacity of their superiors. To my mind, when it comes to age, it’s less of a generation “gap” and more of a spectrum.
- Times Higher Education, “Are older academics past their productive peak?” (2016). Available at: bit.ly/1QZK9bt. Accessed July 7, 2017.
- Taylor and Francis Online, “Explaining the increase in publication productivity among academic staff: a generational perspective”, Available at: bit.ly/2tQ0EYv. Accessed July 7, 2017.
- Y Gingras et al., “The Effects of Aging on Researchers’ Publication and Citation Patterns”, PLoS ONE, 3, [online only], (2008).
Victoria F. Samanidou works in the Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at Arostotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.