Publish or Perish: Selective Attrition as a Unifying Explanation for Patterns in Innovation over the Career

J Hum Resour. 2023 Jul;58(4):1307-1346. doi: 10.3368/jhr.59.2.1219-10630r1.


Studying 5.6 million biomedical science articles published over three decades, we reconcile conflicts in a longstanding interdisciplinary literature on scientists' life-cycle productivity by controlling for selective attrition and distinguishing between research quantity and quality. While research quality declines monotonically over the career, this decline is easily overlooked because higher "ability" authors have longer publishing careers. Our results have implications for broader questions of human capital accumulation over the career and federal research policies that shift funding to early-career researchers - while funding researchers at their most creative, these policies must be undertaken carefully because young researchers are less "able" on average.