Who to Hire?
Lab Staff Can Affect Publication Output

By Mike Howie

When asked to do more with less, how can you optimize productivity? How can you complete not just a large amount of work but effective, successful work with limited time, money, and resources? While these questions have been buzzing in many minds recently, they’re not new.

Back in 2015, a pair of researchers — Annamaria Conti of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Christopher Liu of the University of Toronto — investigated how the composition of laboratory staff can affect publication output. They found that simply hiring more people doesn’t necessarily help you get more done.

The Study

Conti and Liu focused their research on the biology department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examining lab staffs and output from 1966 to 2000. Their dataset included 119 principal investigators and 5,694 laboratory members, who in total published 7,844 papers. About 15 percent of those papers were published in Science, Nature, or Cell.

The average laboratory in the study included about five postdocs, three graduate students, and two technicians. Using regression analysis, the researchers found that adding one member to a lab of this size correlated with an extra quarter publication. While adding even more members to the lab further increased productivity, it did so at slower and slower rates until lab size reached 25 people. After that, adding more staff decreased productivity.

What’s perhaps more illuminating, however, is the fact that some employees seemed to have a greater impact than others. For example, adding a graduate student correlated to an extra 0.14 publications while adding a postdoc correlated to an extra 0.31. And even among postdocs, those with grant support were linked to 0.19 additional publications while those with fellowships were linked to an additional 0.29. Adding technicians, it seems, didn’t make a difference.

The story is slightly different when only considering work published in Science, Nature, or Cell. While bigger labs still seemed to publish more often, the researchers found that adding a lab member of any position increased the likelihood of publication by eight percent. Once lab size reached 22 people, however, hiring more became counterproductive.

Position within the lab still had some effect on publishing in these high-impact journals, but it differed from other publications. This time, graduate students seemed to have increased the likelihood of publication just as much as postdocs, as did technicians. But postdocs without fellowships did not increase the probability of publication.

The study, Bringing the lab back in: Personnel composition and scientific output at the MIT Department of Biology, was published on ScienceDirect.

Remaining Questions

While the study found thought-provoking correlations, it didn’t identify any specific causality. It didn’t determine why, for example, postdocs with fellowships had more impact than those without fellowships, or why graduate students seemed more beneficial than technicians. Liu speculates that graduate students may be better positioned to work on long, risky projects.

“People at different training stages make different contributions,” Liu explained, “but it’s not that they’re less productive. They just have different productivity in different projects.”

There could be a variety of reasons why one employee has more impact on publication than another, and it’s possible that the study’s conclusions may not hold within other schools or disciplines. What remains consistent is that the people we hire are critical to our success.

Mike Howie is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.