#KeyLIMEPodcast 318: Don’t hate Them Because They’re Prolific – Who Publishes a Lot in the University?

Many already academic medicine faculty members, though already busy, are feeling increasing pressure worldwide to be productive scholars – and it well known that there are a select few produce more scholarship than others: the “prolific”. The authors of this study examine these ‘big time authors’, focusing on two research questions: how does their productivity relate to their characteristics and resources; and, why do these patterns matter?

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KeyLIME Session 318

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Fox, MF & I Nikivincze . 2021. Being highly prolific in academic science: characteristics of individuals and their departments. Higher Education. 81: 1237–1255


Jason R. Frank (@drjfrank)


Ah the prolific. Those big-time authors. We know them. We work beside them. We admire them. Some days we don’t like them. We watch them get awards, promotions, and free stuff. How is it that they can get through all the good stuff on Netflix, AppleTV, and Disney+ and still get all those papers written?

Academic medicine is perhaps under increasing pressure worldwide for all busy faculty members to be productive scholars. In addition to being great clinicians and teachers, (more) emphasis is on regular contributions in the form of first author grants and papers. A scholarly arc. A research program.

It is well known that some university members produce more scholarship than others. The upper 10% of European faculty accounted for 50% of publications in a study by Kwiek (2016).  A mere 1% accounted for 42% of all Scopus database papers in a study by Ioannidis (2014)! These are the “prolific”. There are a few studies looking into this phenomenon, but most are bibliometric studies (a cool field increasingly applied to #meded via authors like Lauren Maggio and Anthony Artino).


Enter Fox & Nikivincze from Georgia Tech: the authors argue that prolific faculty are worthy of further study because:
1) They have a disproportionate proportion of scholarship in fields and the countries in which they work and are drivers of research activity.
2) They have a high impact on the discourse and advances in fields (their work influences others and their papers tend to be highly cited and built-upon); and
3) Little is known about the predictors or characteristics of this population.

Fox & Nikivincze set out to explore two research questions:
1) How does exceptional (prolific) productivity relate to academic scientists’ individual characteristics (gender, rank, work practices) and their reported features of departments (resources, climates)?
2) Why do the patterns matter?

Key Points on the Methods

The authors state that they decided not to use bibliometric methods (e.g. Publication counts), in order to get at their research questions. They used what they called a “social-organizational perspective”, looking at the characteristics of highly published individuals and where they work.

They chose science faculty, as their productivity is readily understood to be publications, which are easier to count. The population was science faculty 8 research-intensive universities in the US, with a database created using searches of departmental websites. Inclusion criteria were tenure-track faculty in computer science, engineering, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, math, physics, and psychology. They ensured there were both women & men in the population. From these, they chose a stratified random sample across fields and institutions.

They conducted a survey of these faculty, with items exploring gender, academic rank, work practices related to research habits, degree and span of collaboration, espoused productivity, and perceived departmental work climate. All surveys were anonymized, preventing identification of individuals, and preventing bibliometric cross-referencing.

The primary outcome was being identified as prolific or not, based on self-reported number of papers in the last 3 years, including submitted. Computing science faculty also included conference proceedings. “Prolific” was operationalized as 20 or more publications in the last 3 years. The “prolific” were treated as a homogeneous group.

The survey instrument appeared to be created de novo, without piloting or validity evidence.

Key Outcomes

The respondents were 327 men and 280 women (n=607), with a response rate of 65%. Complete surveys were available for n=493 and were used for further analysis.

15.6% had 20 or more publications. These accounted for 44% of all scholarship.

There was no difference by gender. Predictors of being prolific were:
1) academic rank (higher = more),
2) greater frequency of research meetings.
3) greater participation in collaboration, and greater collaborative span (partnering further afield); and
4) having a local work climate that is “stimulating”.

Gender, graduate students, facilities, equipment, had no impact.

Further analysis using logistic regression and factor analysis didn’t change these results.

Key Conclusions

The authors conclude that highly prolific faculty tend to be more senior in their career, regardless of gender, tend to have more collaborations and more weekly research activities. They speculate that previous studies finding gender as a factor may be mediated by academic rank. Departmental features were not as important as individual behaviours.

The authors acknowledge many limitations of their study: self-report, many constructs and assumptions, different fields, intersectional impact of rewarding productivity (aka the Matthew effect).

Spare Keys – Other take home points for Clinician Educators

1. This paper is a stimulus to consider studies of the nature of #meded as field
2. Bibliometrics is the science of publications, and is an emerging area of #meded
3. This paper demonstrates a paradigm of academic value = quantity of publications, an unfortunate but common orientation in academic medicine
4. This paper also demonstrates some concerning choices of method and analysis that many would agree overreach the logic of the study
5. Prolific authors are a legitimate area of study.

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