Where do universities recruit researchers?

Vít Macháček and Martin Srholec

Think-tank IDEA of the Economic Institute of Czech Academy of Sciences

Study No. 2/2020

February 2020


Top universities hire researchers from the global labour market. In such institutions, internal candidates could be even ineligible to apply for open positions to limit the so-called 'academic inbreeding'. Attracting talent from outside brings new ideas, approaches and collaborations, and is vital for sustaining research excellence.

How could we measure the extent to which universities hire researchers from outside? Does the tendency to employ researchers originally from the same place markedly differ across universities from different countries? How does this tendency differ across disciplines and over time?

From the author affiliations in the Scopus citation database, we found how many researchers are currently based at the same university where they were affiliated at the beginning of their research careers. The researchers who published at least one article with affiliation to their current university during the first twelve months of their publication activity are marked as originating from the same place. If their initial articles were published under a different organization, we traced whether this was in the same country or abroad.

Based on this data, we divided current researchers in each university and discipline into three mutually exclusive groups:

  1. % of researchers originally from the same university (or city).
  2. % of researchers originally from another domestic organization.
  3. % of researchers originally from a foreign organization.

The comparison includes evidence from eighteen universities in fourteen countries, including the new EU member countries of the Visegrad group. The results are presented for eleven large disciplines, two groups of researchers by seniority and the initial location given by the specific university or only a city, where it is located.

This analysis is original and its results are not available elsewhere. The results are presented in an interactive manner that allows readers to customize the analysis. The findings should be of interest not only to academics and students, but also to policy-makers and broader public by that matter.

See also earlier studies of the IDEA think tank on related topics, including on globalization of science, local journals, predatory publishing and traditional bibliometrics.

The main limitation and a robustness test

The results presented do not reflect academic inbreeding per se due to limitations of the methodology. We do not know whether the researcher only published one of her initial articles with an affiliation to the university in which she is currently based, or whether this is also her alma mater. If she actually graduated from her current academic employer, this is inbreeding in the true sense, but otherwise it is not.

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that our indicator conflates the tendency to inbreeding in the sense of a researcher being based at the same university from which she graduated, and career persistence in the sense of remaining employed at the same university where the researcher took her initial job. This is a general indicator of researchers’ (im)mobility, which, depending on circumstances, more or less correlates to inbreeding.

To test, how significant is this limitation, we conducted a robustness test on a sub-sample of 90 researchers in three disciplines. We directly found out from publicly available sources, from which university they graduated and compared this information with the affiliations in their initial articles. The conclusions with regards to inbreeding were the same using both approaches between 77 % to 90 %, which indicates that the presented results are in fact fairly robust to this kind of limitations. Nevertheless, we proceed with caution when interpreting the results, as the match of affiliations in current and initial articles is only an indirect indicator of inbreeding.

Useful information to bear in mind

  • The sample includes only researchers who published their first article before 2013, i.e. in 2018 they had been publishing for at least six years, in order to prevent current doctoral students from driving the results.
  • For the sake of robustness, only results based on data available for at least 30 researchers in the respective university and discipline are reported. Records with insufficient data are marked as 'n.a.'.
  • Only disciplines that are sufficiently large in most of the universities in the study are included. Social sciences have been aggregated into a single category to achieve the critical mass.
  • Because not all disciplines are covered, it could be misleading to derive (and compare) total figures at the university level.
  • More universities and disciplines have not been included, because processing of the data is time-consuming. Scaling up the analysis is planned in the future.
  • The analysis is solely based on author affiliations in published articles. We do not know the extent to which the researcher is really based at that university or the parameters of her contract.
  • The study builds on the assumption that researchers acknowledge affiliation to the university in which they did the research in their published articles.
  • The results reflect only affiliations in initial and current articles, not those related to where the researcher was based in the meantime.
  • Names of initial affiliations have been carefully cleaned, harmonized and compared with the current affiliations, but some connections may have slipped through the cracks, resulting in overestimation of the extent of hiring researchers originally from outside.
  • Researchers are fully counted in each discipline to which a journal is assigned in which they published in 2018.
  • Only journal articles are taken into account, and not other document types such as editorials, reviews, conference papers or book chapters.
  • Some of the current researchers are simultanously affiliated to other workplaces.
  • In the upper-right corner is located a help button , which provides basic guidelines on how to use the application.

Tip: For more details on the methodology see pop-ups with definitions in the introduction.

Main findings

When employing researchers, the most inward-looking prove to be the national flagship universities of the Visegrad countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. More than half of their current researchers are shown to have linkages to the same university already at the start of their careers.

In contrast, hiring researchers originally from outside is most prevalent in the leading universities in the United States and United Kingdom, including Princeton and Oxford. Fewer than a quarter of their current researchers began their research careers at the same university.

Nevertheless, the Visegrad universities are similar in this respect to KU Leuven, the University of Vienna and Lund University in many disciplines. The main dividing line does not seem to follow the traditional 'East vs. West' differences, but rather tends to highlight the gap between those institutions at the top of global university rankings and the rest.

Tip: Switch disciplines in the dropdown menu above the chart to see how the picture is changing.

Other remarks

As can be expected, the flipside of employing researchers whose research careers began at the same university is low internationalization. Cosmopolitan universities in smaller countries, in particular ETH Zürich, maintain the highest shares of researchers with origins from abroad, while a strong national focus is the hallmark of universities in the Visegrad countries.

If the initial location indicator is changed from the university to the city, the tendency to hire from outside naturally appears smaller, especially for the universities that already had a high tendency to hire from inside, and those located in large cities. These sometimes have more than three-quarters of their current researchers originating from the same city.

Nevertheless, a comparison of junior and senior researchers does not reveal a clear overall trend. Several universities noticeably decreased their propensity to employ researchers originally from inside, including KU Leuven, Lund University and the University of Warsaw. However, there is also an opposite tendency, most notably at the University of Szeged and Comenius University.

Tip: Select a group by seniority or a base location by city in the upper menu to examine robustness of the main results.

Originally from abroad

Next, we complement the overall picture with details on where the researchers who started their careers abroad originated and information on the difference between seniors and juniors in this regard. Hence, it also measures changes over time.

It is important to realize, however, that the researchers originating from abroad may not necessarily be foreigners. It may well be that some are in fact citizens of the country, in which the respective university is located, who began their research abroad and eventually returned to their homeland.

The Visegrad universities continue to hire researchers trained abroad to a fairly limited extent. In contrast, the Western universities not only employ far more researchers with foreign backgrounds, but also increasingly more of them from the junior category. In this respect, the gulf between the East and West is deepening.

As can be expected, in the Western universities most of the flows come from one Western country to another, especially within Western Europe. However, the advent of researchers originating from other parts of the world is striking, most prominently from China and other developing countries.

In the Visegrad universities, the dominant category are also researchers originally trained in Western countries, who in this context are quite likely to be returnees. Interestingly, Eastern Europe represents a relatively limited source of researchers, not only for the Western universities but also for the Visegrad area, despite geographical, historical and cultural proximity.

Initial affiliation abroad by region (% of total current researchers)

Note: Eastern Europe includes all European countries that were part of the former communist block. Western Europe refers to all other European countries. Other developed countries include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korean and Taiwan. Developing countries is the residual category. Researchers with initial affiliations to multiple foreign countries were assigned fractionally.

Source: Scopus.

Concluding remarks

Overall, this study demonstrates that relevant insights about academic mobility can be derived from evidence on the affiliations of researchers, which is regularly recorded in published journal articles. This is important because this type of evidence is very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain from other existing sources, especially in a broad international and interorganization comparison.

Jones and Sloan (2019) found that the share of professors at top economics departments in the United States who received their Ph.D.s. at the same workplace was only 5 % at Yale University, 7 % at the University of California, Berlekey, 11 % at the University of Chicago, 12 % at Princeton University, 24 % at Stanford University and 28 % at Harvard University and MIT, which is broadly in line with the proportions identified in this study based on bibliometrics.

Science Europe (2013) is a rare example of an earlier study that engaged in a similar exercise to this study, albeit only at the country level, dealing only with international mobility and disregarding differences between disciplines. Their results showed that during the period 1996-2011, the most 'sedentary' researchers were those employed in the new EU member countries of Eastern Europe, including the Visegrad group, and southern European countries; this is also very much in line with our findings.

Some of the flagship universities in Visegrad countries, which produce the best research in their respective national contexts, could arguably gain little from hiring researchers from elsewhere in the same country. However, it is likely that they would benefit from drawing more on the best available talent from abroad, perhaps from countries with similar (or even lower) wage levels in Eastern Europe or in the developing world.

The main barriers to more hiring from abroad are likely to be twofold. First, the Visegrad universities do not always announce calls for new positions internationally, so foreign candidates may be unaware of openings. Second, the Visegrad universities may not be attractive to foreigners not only because of their relatively low salaries, but also because of outdated human resources practices, including conditions for early career researchers, rigid career development paths and teaching requirements, and administration in local languages.

The best practices of merit-based and international hiring are slowly proliferating at Visegrad universities, but progress remains limited to individual workplaces and positions, rather than constituting a broad trend that would be noticeable in the overall data. Indeed, system-wide changes would require bold structural reforms of the national researcher's labour markets, which are notoriously difficult to design and implement.

Tip: Spend more time with the app and explore in detail universities and disciplines of your interest.

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Please cite as: Macháček, V. and Srholec, M. (2020) Where do universities recruit researchers? IDEA Study 1/2020. Institute for Democracy and Economic Analysis (IDEA), CERGE-EI, Prague.

See the references in the list of literature.

Acknowledgement: Financial support from the research programme Strategy AV21 of the Czech Academy of Sciences is gratefully acknowledged. All usual caveats apply.

This study represents only the views of the authors and not the official position of the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences or the Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education (CERGE), Charles University. We gratefully acknowledge the comments and insights from Štěpán Jurajda, Daniel Münich, Sergey Slobodyan, Šimon Stiburek a Aleš Vlk.