The golden years appear to have little effect on the productivity of the active professor, according to a Canadian study that looked at publication frequency and the aging academic. The study, by researchers from the Université du Québec à Montréal and published in December in the journal PLoS ONE, found that professors in the science disciplines aged 50 to 70 published almost twice as many papers in academic journals as their 30-year-old counterparts. The investigation also found that at an age when other non-academic seniors might be teeing off on a golf course or spending more time with the grandchildren, older university professors are continuing to publish in top academic journals.
The Effects of Aging on Researchers' Publication and Citation Patterns measured publishing frequency using a database of more than 6,000 professors teaching in Quebec universities from 2000 to 2007. It found that 30-year-old professors publish on average 1.8 papers per year, while those at the age of 50 publish 3.2 per year and then remain at close to three papers per year until the age of 70.
For the entire professoriate in the database, the rate of publishing decreased slowly from the age of 50 onward. But the study's lead author Professor Yves Gingras notes that at that age many professors have taken up administrative roles in the university.
So the team parted the professors who remained in an active research role from those non-active professors. By doing so they found that those professors who were active at 50 did not slow down for the next 20 years.
The researchers say that professors publishing in their later years were less likely to be the lead authors: "At this point, you're usually the head of the lab. Your team goes to you for ideas but you play a different role," said Gingras, who holds the Canada Research chair in the history and sociology of science.
Older professors will usually have better resources and attract more collaborators than their younger counterparts, allowing them to sign on to more studies, albeit not always as lead authors.
The results have science policy implications, the researchers argue. At a time when some countries are re-evaluating their policy on mandatory retirement, the fact that older researchers still play an effective role in the production of high impact papers cannot be neglected.
They add that effective policies must take into consideration the collective aspects of scientific research and not focus on a simplistic view of "creativity" as an individualistic property of a person. "Science is a collective endeavour and, as our data show, researchers of all ages play an effective role in its dynamic."
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