Background: A simple, generalizable method for measuring research output would be useful in attempts to build research capacity, and in other contexts.
Methods: A simple indicator of individual research output was developed, based on grant income, publications and numbers of PhD students supervised. The feasibility and utility of the indicator was examined by using it to calculate research output from two similarly-sized research groups in different countries. The same indicator can be used to assess the balance in the research "portfolio" of an individual researcher.
Results: Research output scores of 41 staff in Research Department A had a wide range, from zero to 8; the distribution of these scores was highly skewed. Only about 20% of the researchers had well-balanced research outputs, with approximately equal contributions from grants, papers and supervision. Over a five-year period, Department A's total research output rose, while the number of research staff decreased slightly, in other words research productivity (output per head) rose. Total research output from Research Department B, of approximately the same size as A, was similar, but slightly higher than Department A.
Conclusions: The proposed indicator is feasible. The output score is dimensionless and can be used for comparisons within and between countries. Modeling can be used to explore the effect on research output of changing the size and composition of a research department. A sensitivity analysis shows that small increases in individual productivity result in relatively greater increases in overall departmental research output. The indicator appears to be potentially useful for capacity building, once the initial step of research priority setting has been completed.