Lab Size Study Stirs Debate

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

Feb 9, 2015
Bob Grant

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.