Tenure, research & risk

Tyler points us to an interesting paper on how getting tenure affects the frequency of publication and the citations to published pieces. The paper is trying to examine the often used rationale for tenure that it allows you to take risks. As the paper and Tyler both point out, the risk that many tenured profs take is that they can stop doing work and still keep their jobs!

They studied publication frequencies and citation counts from 1996 to 2014.

They found most “home runs” came before tenure and that post tenure, profs produced fewer pubs and fewer citations to those pubs.

One caveat I’d mention is that if you write something risky, it might take a long time for the profession to catch up to it. You might have to publish it in a “lower” quality journal and it might take a long time for citations to grow. I know Van Gogh didn’t have tenure, but he took risks and never sold a painting in his lifetime (shit I’ve already sold 3!!).

My “home run” was my 1989 paper with Gordon Tullock.  It was cited fairly lightly for the first 10 years post-publication, not hitting 50 cites per year until 2004,  15 years after publication! Cites to the piece peaked in 2013, but it is still getting cited (64 times in 2015).  So the time frame in the paper may be too short. Papers in their sample published in 2005 or later don’t really have the time often needed to create a big pool of citations. Especially if the piece is weird or “risky”.

Tenure also relaxes constraints. When Robin and I moved to Oklahoma, she was untenured and we decided not to work together during her probationary period. After she got tenure, we resumed co-authoring and produced 3 Journal of Development Economics papers in 5 years. That got Robin promoted to full, and then she started on her (risky to me at least) project that culminated in her Cambridge book that came out last year.

Many ambitious academics will keep playing the game past tenure til full. Then I think they may well try riskier things, but by then they are probably 40+ and their best brain days may well be behind them.

I actually think making promotion to full much tougher might get us more risk-taking researchers.

I also think that stringent tenure standards encourage researchers to concentrate their efforts during a time when their training is the freshest, their spirits are the strongest and their brains are at their sharpest. Then when they are broken down we give them tenure and put them out to pasture. It’s only fair.