A group led by Fabio Pammolli at the IMT Institute For Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, presents a study in PNAS this week on the annual research production of a given scientist, analyzed in the context of longitudinal career data for 200 scientists and 100 assistant professors within the physics community. "Our empirical analysis of individual productivity dynamics shows that there are increasing returns for the top individuals within the competitive cohort, and that the distribution of production growth is a leptokurtic 'tent-shaped' distribution that is remarkably symmetric," Pammolli et al. write. Further, the team presents a theoretical "model of proportional growth which … accounts for the significantly right-skewed distributions of career longevity and achievement in science," and says that it found, using this model, that "short-term contracts can amplify the effects of competition and uncertainty making careers more vulnerable to early termination, not necessarily due to lack of individual talent and persistence, but because of random negative production shocks."
The researchers also focused on the effects of career uncertainty, "portrayed by the common saying 'publish or perish.'" Overall, Pammolli and his colleagues "highlight the importance of an employment relationship that is able to combine positive competitive pressure with adequate safeguards to protect against career hazards and endogenous production uncertainty an individual is likely to encounter in his/her career."