Why do top universities produce more research than others? Their people have more labor backing them up.

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Dive Brief:

  • Faculty at elite colleges generate a disproportionate share of published research, in part because they have consistent access to more academic labor, according to peer-reviewed research published in Science Advances, an open-access journal.
  • Prestigious institutions — whose Ph.D. graduates are frequently hired by other colleges — are more likely than their more accessible counterparts to have graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on the payroll. These positions often serve as junior researchers, giving faculty members a substantial labor advantage over their peers elsewhere.
  • Differences in academic output are likely attributable to prestigious colleges’ larger labor forces and not an inherently smarter faculty, researchers concluded.

Dive Insight:

The uneven distribution of labor could stunt the diversity of scientific research. But the article suggests that adding scientific labor at less-prestigious universities could change what subjects are examined and who makes discoveries.

Any research facility could expect an uptick in scientific productivity if it had access to the same labor resources as elite colleges, according to the article.

“The creation of scientific knowledge is a collective effort, and increasing the number of researchers will reliably increase the amount of research being produced,” it said.

Researchers reviewed work from almost 79,000 tenure-track faculty members in 25 disciplines across 262 Ph.D.-granting institutions. The analysis focused on 1.6 million publications from the Web of Science database, which researchers called a “crude but quantifiable” way of measuring scientific contributions.

They broke down productivity in disciplines where research is normally done in groups — such as engineering and computer science — versus those where independent work is standard. They found individuals’ productivity was similar across fields but was outpaced by group productivity. That supports the idea that productivity is linked to additional labor and large research groups.

Other factors could also affect productivity, such as working conditions, differences in faculty teaching loads and other forms of support they receive. But researchers told Nature they believe the patterns they uncovered point to labor availability as the most likely driver of differences.

“The myth of the meritocracy, that productivity is tied to some sort of inherent characteristics about a person, doesn’t really seem to be supported by the data,” Aaron Clauset, a computer science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who coauthored the new research, told Nature. “Instead, we find these environmental factors that seem to explain differences in average productivity.”

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