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A new study of academic productivity says that older professors, sometimes criticized as being academic deadwood, publish as much as their younger colleagues.

These senior scholars do tend to publish fewer conference papers than younger colleagues but keep pace with them in terms of published articles, the paper says. Crucially, senior professors publish more chapters and books than their younger counterparts, reflecting the valuable synthesis of knowledge and insight gathered over the course of a career.

The study, published in Scientometrics, is available here.

“Senior scholars are blamed using anecdotal evidence for some things that are as extreme as reducing national scientific advancement, for instance, simply by failing to produce research at the same levels as their colleagues,” said study co-author Anthony Olejniczak, director of research at Academic Analytics, which tracks research metrics for colleges and universities. “I hope that our study adds something of a quantitative framework to address that and shows that senior scholars do in fact contribute to the research program.”

Underscoring the study’s findings about publication type and quantity, Olejniczak said that how professors are publishing may shift over their career arc, “but there isn't a peak and decline in research productivity.”

Comparing Age-Based Cohorts

Using faculty publication information from Academic Analytics’ own databases, Olejniczak and his co-author, William E. Savage, also of Academic Analytics, studied the publishing activity of 167,299 tenure-track and tenured faculty members at 380 U.S. research universities from 2014 to 2018. For comparison purposes, they divided the professors into age-based cohorts of early career, midcareer and senior faculty, with senior faculty members having held their Ph.D.s for 31 or more years. Co-authored works were counted.

Olejniczak and Savage also looked for differences between disciplines, dividing the faculty members’ fields into six broad categories: biological and biomedical sciences, business, engineering, humanities, physical sciences and math, and social and behavioral sciences.

Over all, the study says, senior scholars "maintain publishing activity levels and tend to shift their focus to the development and evolution of ideas through the publication of longer-format works as books and book chapters."

A bit more detail: senior scholars published between 3 percent fewer and 2 percent more than expected journal articles, based on the share of the academic population they made up, and depending on discipline. In all fields, senior scholars published fewer than expected conference proceedings, with a significant drop-off between midcareer and senior scholars in most fields.

For books, however, senior scholars published many more books than expected, ranging from 8 percent more in the humanities to 25 percent more than expected in business. Early-career scholars, meanwhile, published many fewer books than expected, based on their share of the population, from 8 percent fewer in the humanities to 28 percent fewer in business. Regarding book chapters, senior scholars produced more chapters than expected in all fields, from 2 percent more in engineering to 14 percent more in business.

Peter Lange, Thomas A. Langford University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and former provost at Duke University, and an adviser to Academic Analytics, said a written review of the findings that they prove "convincingly that a widespread belief -- that as scholars age, especially in fields driven by grants and journal publication, their scholarly productivity declines -- is incorrect. It changes but does not necessarily decline, and it changes in ways that enrich the scholarly literature."

More on Mandatory Retirement

Starting in 1994, federal law prohibited college and universities from mandating that tenured professors retire at 70. The years and months leading up to that change saw a flurry of articles and opinion pieces about the supposed dangers of an aging academy. These arguments surfaced again around the 2008 financial crisis, when many professors indicated that they would put off retirement until the economy improved. And warnings about academic deadwood continue to pop up now and again, sometimes to support criticism of the tenure system.

One such warning, a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, went so far as to link the ongoing decline in humanities enrollments to the lack of a mandatory retirement age, saying that “Baby-boomer academics are less and less active even as the few professional activities they pursue are less and less relevant.”

The author of that op-ed, historian Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston, wrote that older professors should step aside and free up tenure-track jobs for young academics who would otherwise work as adjuncts -- an altruistic argument. But Zaretsky also expressed concern that “key cognitive abilities begin to fray dramatically after the age of 70.”

In other words, he said, “we increasingly become, quite literally, thoughtless” after a certain age, “a less-than-desirable quality for a professor.”

Zaretsky, who did not respond to a request for comment, used the impact of his own aging on his career as an example. But he admitted that there are “no studies I could find that measure the scholarly output of academics who are 65 and over.”

Olejniczak, who was partly inspired by the op-ed to pursue this research question, said there is indeed little data on senior faculty productivity. While it’s well documented that the end of the mandatory retirement age led to the expansion of the senior faculty ranks, he said, much less attention has been paid to whether senior faculty productivity has in fact declined since 1994. Anecdotes, not data, dominate the debate.

Room for More Research

“There are so many arguments about senior scholars floating around, whether it's about research or teaching or whether they make equal contributions or proportional contributions to service,” Olejniczak said. “We were only able to test one of those, but really there's a dearth of data across the whole spectrum and I don't know why.”

What about teaching and service? Anecdotes about senior professors not caring about teaching or refusing committee work are just as plentiful as those about their scholarly productivity. Olejniczak said that was outside the scope of this particular study, and the article itself notes this limitation. Olejniczak also said he doesn’t want to suggest that productivity is “the most important thing.” But this is one paper that begins to fill the literature “gap” about the effects of the end of the mandatory retirement age, he said.

While there’s certainly room for more research, Olejniczak said he hopes his data will help administrators at research-intensive universities to at least begin to make more informed decisions about related issues, such as hiring and retirement policies. The paper also helps shed light on what’s to be expected of early- and midcareer researchers, he said.

Ultimately, the study says, “The (hypothetical) loss of senior scholars en masse through reinstitution of a mandatory retirement age may result in the loss of knowledge dissemination in the form of books and book chapters that aggregate, summarize and extend the development and evolution of ideas and paradigms.”

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