Lab Size Study Stirs Debate

Do bigger labs churn out more high-impact papers? Not necessarily, according to a new analysis.

By Bob Grant | February 9, 2015

WIKIMEDIA, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH AT BRADFORDIn the “publish-or-perish” world of academia, it’s often assumed that bigger labs produce more papers than their less-populated counterparts. Not so, proposed the authors of a new analysis of nearly five years worth of work at 400 labs in the U.K. If cranking out well-cited studies is the aim, the ideal lab consists of 10 to 15 members, according to three University of Sussex researchers who published their study last month as a  PeerJ preprint. The Sussex team also found evidence based on authorship to suggest that principal investigators (PIs) are five times more productive than other lab members on average, and post docs are three times more productive than PhD candidates.

The study found a positive linear relationship between group size and publication output, but when impact factor and number of citations were factored into the analysis, the importance of more lab members topped out from between 10 and 15. Adding more PhD students and postdocs doesn’t necessarily up the publication output, the authors concluded. “Postdocs are clearly more productive than PhD students in most areas of biology,” Mark Pallen, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in the U.K., told Nature, “and it is therefore a good idea to get project grant funding as soon as possible in one’s academic career” to afford those senior trainees.

But Pallen added that he wasn’t convinced that 10 to 15 members was the ideal lab size. The analysis may not have included enough data from large groups, he said.

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Avatar of: FSB


Posts: 7

February 9, 2015

Interesting study. The report, though, has an egregious spelling error that has slowly crept into even formal writing. At the end of the first paragraph, a sentence states that  "...The Sussex team also found evidence based on authorship to suggest that principle investigators (PIs) are..."

It's principAl investigator, no principle. From

PRINCIPAL (adjective): 1. first or highest in rank, importance, value, etc.; chief; foremost. 2.  of, of the nature of, or constituting principal or capital

PRINCIPLE (noun ): 1. an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct. 2. a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived. 3. a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion. 4. principles, a personal or specific basis of conduct or management. 5. guiding sense of the requirements and obligations of right conduct. 6. an adopted rule or method for application in action. 7. a rule or law exemplified in natural phenomena, the construction or operation of a machine, the working of a system, or the like.

Avatar of: tvence


Posts: 1052

Replied to a comment from FSB made on February 9, 2015

February 10, 2015

Thanks for reading, FSB. Great catch! We've fixed our typo.

All the best,

Tracy Vence

News Editor, The Scientist

Avatar of: Zafar Iqbal, PhD

Zafar Iqbal, PhD

Posts: 9

April 15, 2015

The findings are not surprising; however, it is surprising that three researchers spent so much of their precious time to research something that is a common knowledge. 

The principle (correct is principal) investigators are 5-times more productive because they control the grant money and put their names on every paper that goes out from their lab.  The postdocs are more productive than the students because that is the only job they have, to do. Poor students, on the other hand, have to deal with course work and they are totally dependent on persons paying their stipends (usually the PIs).

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