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Does tenure reduce incentives for high quality research?

February 3, 2018


By Carl Christian Kontz (International Trade, Finance, and Development ’18)


Economics is a very diverse field of social science with sub disciplines ranging from cultural economics, climate change economics, or sports economics to more traditional fields like trade theory or finance. A fascinating sub discipline, however, is economics itself.

In the following, I will give a brief summary of an interesting article recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In this contribution the researchers employ econometrics methods and economic theory to examine their own ecosystem.

But why would economists be interested in conducting research about their own profession? Colander (1989, p.1) provides some insight:

“The economics profession is interesting to economists for a number of interrelated reasons:

(1) For prurient and professional interest: It is fun to know about oneself and one’s profession.

(2) As a case study: If economic theory is correct, it should apply to the economics profession. Since economists have firsthand knowledge of the economics profession and relatively easy access to data, it makes an excellent case study.

(3) Because one has an interest in the sociology of knowledge: Recent developments in methodology and philosophy of science have made a knowledge of the scientists an important aspect of a knowledge of science; they are the lens through which science is interpreted. Understanding the tendency of scientists to aim that lens in particular directions and to distort the reality they are studying is necessary if one is to interpret their analyses correctly.”

In the current issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP, Vol. 32, No. 1 – Winter 2018), Brogaard and company published an interesting contribution on the impact of tenure on research productivity. The authors examine whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to change their research and publishing behavior by using a sample of all academics who pass through top 50 U.S. economics and finance departments from 1996 through 2014. By using the extreme tails of ex-post citations as a measure of risk-taking in research, they find that both output of research and quality of output peak at the point where tenure is granted and decline thereafter. However, the opposite patterns hold true for the weak end of the tails with rising numbers after tenure. Using a subsample of academics at top 10 U.S. departments, the authors are able to show similar outcomes.

To obtain their results, the authors hand-collect a sample of employment and publishing data of academics at top 50 economics and finance departments in the United States. The sample encompasses the years from 1996 through 2014 and contains a total of 2,763 names, of whom 2,092 are eventually tenured at some point prior to 2014. Brogaard et al. (2018) consider two variables in the years before and after being granted tenure: the total number of publications, which serves as a measure of output; and the number of “home run” publications, meaning highly influential writings, as a measure of quality. By matching these names to publications in the 51 leadings journals in finance and economics, the authors are able to obtain their measure of output. The measure of quality, “home runs”, is defined as publications among the 10 percent’s most cited of all papers published in a given year.

Their findings indicate that both variables peak at the time tenure is granted and decline thereafter. The average output of annual publications by just tenured academics in economics declines by approximately 30 percent over the two subsequent years and further falls by an additional 15 percent over the next eight years. The average number of “home run’s” also falls by 30 percent over the two years after being granted tenure. Moreover, in the subsequent eight years it drops by another 35 percent. Given these findings, the authors calculate that the likelihood of a given publication to receive “home run” status declines by approximately 25 percent during the ten years following tenure.

Given their results, the authors set out to test different explanations which could have effects on the quantity and quality of tenured academics. Among those are:

  • Age effects the ability to produce top-rate tenure
  • Rise in non-research related work which is associated with becoming tenured
  • Tenured academics might branch out into our (sub) disciplines
  • Truly novel research may need time to gain momentum
  • Some schools may have poor tenure contracting

However, the authors test for those and claim that none of the explanations above seem likely given the data.

Brogaard et al. (2018) suggest two explanations which fit their general results: On the one hand, the decline in publication rates is coherent with the idea that tenure is granted once an academic has proven her merit through publishing success. On the other, tenure might reduce risk-taking behavior which leads to lower quality output. Overall, their findings indicate that “tenure is not providing incentives to undertake research in the same quantity and quality that led up to the tenure decision.” (p. 181).

In their conclusion the authors hasten to clarify that “[t]his paper should not be read as an indictment of the institution of tenure” (p. 192) as they only consider one aspect of tenure. Moreover, their work focusses on economics and finance only and cannot be generalized to other fields. However, they believe that their findings raise some practical questions for economic academia and it’s institutions (p.193):

“For economists, the findings suggest that they should be wary of allocating their research time in a way that seems likely to lead to low-impact papers, and instead consider if there is a way for them to continue their earlier research efforts—at least in terms of quality, if not necessarily in quantity. When making a tenure decision, departments of economics and their home institutions should be aware that the research productivity of the person receiving tenure is likely to decline, in both quantity and quality terms, over the following decade. Thus, institutions should consider whether there are methods to sustain (or at least not to impede) high-quality research efforts.”

The paper is available as a PDF using this link to the AEA website:

https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jep.32.1.179

 

Citations:

  1. Colander, David. 1989. “Research on the Economics Profession.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3(4): 137-148.
  2. Brogaard, Jonathan, Joseph Engelberg, and Edward Van Wesep. 2018. “Do Economists Swing for the Fences after Tenure?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 32(1): 179-94.
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