• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Publish or Perish? Academics in European Universities

Some academics publish a lot – and others publish at moderate rates, or not at all. It has always been so.

April 10, 2016

I have focused in my previous blogs about European universities on “internationals” and “locals” in research and on research “non-performers” (or “non-publishers”); now it is time to focus on highly productive academics across the same 11 European systems.

Research in higher education has consistently shown that some academics publish a lot – and others publish at moderate rates, or not at all. It has always been so. But institutional reward and promotion structures have always been focused on research achievements, that is, on publications. And academic prestige has always come almost exclusively from research.

As shown over the decades by Alfred Lotka, Derek de Solla Price, Robert K. Merton, Jonathan R. and Stephen Cole, Paula Stephan, and Philip G. Altbach, among others, the majority of university research production comes from a minority of productive academics. We expected the rule to apply to Europe – but it was not shown empirically.

The primary data I am using here come from the global CAP and European EUROAC research projects on the academic profession (“Changing Academic Profession” and “Academic Profession in Europe”). There were 13,908 usable cases of research-involved academics from 11 countries: Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The combined CAP/EUROAC dataset is the most comprehensive source of cross-national attitudinal and behavioral data on academics available today.

I explored research productivity defined as the self-reported number of refereed journal articles and chapters in academic books that the respondent had published in the three years prior to the survey (2007-2010). “Research top performers” were identified as academics ranked among the top 10 percent of academics with the highest research performance in each of the 11 national systems separately and in the five major research field clusters separately.

Research top performers give substance to European research production: without them, it would be halved. Because, consistently across all 11 European systems studied, on average, slightly less than half (45.9 percent) of all academic research production comes from about 10 percent of the most highly productive academics. And in four systems, the share is near or exceeds 50 percent (Austria, Finland, Poland, and Portugal). I would name it “the 10/50 rule of academic productivity”.

If the research-active European academic profession employed full-time in universities were divided into two halves, the uppermost productive half would produce more than 90 percent of all articles (91.5 percent), and the lower most productive half merely 8.5 percent.

Top performers work much longer hours: week by week, month by month, and year by year. Their longer working regimen is statistically significant for all countries studied. The mean for the annualized total working time differential between them and the rest of academics is 6.2 hours, ranging from 2.2 hours in Italy to 9.4 hours in Norway and 10.2 hours in Germany.

In other words, German top performers spend on average an additional 66.3 full working days on scholarly pursuits per year (10.2 hours times 52 weeks divided by 8 hours per day). There is a standard average working pattern for top performers: the time they spend on research is on average 28.5 percent higher. They also spend more time on teaching, service, and administration.

Being interested “primarily in teaching” virtually statistically excludes European academics from the class of research top performers, and being research-oriented is statistically virtually a must. The distribution of research role orientation is almost universal across all the countries studied.

European research top performers emerge as much more cosmopolitan (the power of internationalization), much more hard working (the power of long overall working hours and long research hours), and much more research-oriented (the power of a single academic focus) than the rest of European academics, despite differentiated national contexts.

The European research elite is a highly homogeneous group of academics whose research performance is driven by structurally similar factors. The variables increasing the odds of entering this class are individual rather than institutional. From whichever institutional and national contexts they come, they work according to similar working patterns and they share similar academic attitudes. Highly productive academics are similar from a European cross-national perspective – and they substantially differ intra-nationally from their lower-performing colleagues.

Policy implications of this pattern are more important in systems in which research funding is increasingly dispersed in individual research grants than in systems with primarily institutionally-based subsidy-type research funding, and are different for competitive and non-competitive systems. The tension between teaching and research time investments is likely to increase in systems in which more competitive research funding systems are introduced.

A new typology of the European academic profession emerges: there are research top performers, moderate and low performers, as well as non-performers. The academic behaviors and academic attitudes of research top performers are worlds apart from those of other academics. In terms of research productivity, there is no single “academic profession” – there are only “academic professions” in the plural. Consequently, the “publish or perish” imperative refers to segments of the academic profession to different degrees—those who publish a lot are likely to keep publishing at the same high rates; while those who do not publish still seem unlikely to perish. The parallel existence of the two distinct segments of academics may be producing more intra-institutional tensions, though.

    Note: This blog is based on research published in Higher Education in Russia and Beyond as “Publish or Perish? The Highly Productive Research Elite in European Universities from a Comparative Quantitative Perspective” (No. 1(7), Spring 2016, and is based on my recent paper published in Higher EducationThe European Research Elite. A Cross-National Study of Highly Productive Academics in 11 Countries” (Vol. 71(3), 2016.



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