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Make mine a double

beer.jpgPosted on behalf of Zoë Corbyn

There have been some radical suggestions to increase citation counts of late but heavy drinking would probably rank at the bottom of most researchers’ lists.

Yet a new study has found that the world’s most highly cited ecologists and environmental scientists typically consume more than double the amount imbibed by the general population.

Published in the October issue of Scientometrics, John Parker, a post-doctoral sociologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues report the results of a survey of the drinking habits of 124 of the most highly cited researchers in ecology and environmental science: the vast majority men aged between 50 and 70 based in either North America or Western Europe.

The results reveal that consumption for this group averages around 7 alcoholic beverages per week, about 2.5 drinks over the weekly consumption of the average American. Though a fifth of the group does not drink, more than half consume 10 or more alcoholic beverages a week, 20% consume 12 or more and 10% consumer 21 or more. The largest consumer downed 31 per week.

The researchers are quick to point out the obvious – correlation does not equal causation. “We are definitely not saying ‘drink more to do better’,” Parker stresses. But he does believe that more and better information is needed to unravel the observed relationship and the “non-scientific activities that affect scientific productivity”.

The results support the positive association between national per capita beer consumption and a country’s citations per paper reported in a 2009 paper by Canadian ecologist Christopher Lortie, who collaborated with Parker on the current paper.

But they stand in contrast to a 2008 survey of Czech ecologists by Thomas Grim, also an ecologist. Grim, based at Palacky University in the Czech Republic, found the opposite: that increased levels of beer consumption were associated with lower numbers of citations.

“Because of well documented negative and causal effects of ethanol, independently of dose, on both mental performance and health, I find it unlikely that the Parker et al. finding reflects more than a spurious relationship,” Grim told Nature News.

Eminent Oxford ecologist Bob May – a lifelong teetotaller – also said he did not recognise Parker’s picture. “My experience is that my ecologist friends are not at all heavy drinkers.”

Michael Hochberg from the University of Montpellier in France speculated on why – if this were so – highly cited researchers might be pushed to drink more. They might attend more functions, be more “stressed out”, or they may just be “past their heyday and drowning their sorrows”, he suggested.

Image: a drink, photo by Mike McCune via Flickr under creative commons.


  1. Report this comment

    Alex said:

    Parker and Grim’s studies both appear to have some limitations in terms of the conclusions discussed here.

    Parker’s group are mainly men aged 50 to 70, but they compare their alcohol consumption with that of the “average American”, where really the consumption of the average male 50-70 year-old would be more appropriate. It could simply be that males aged 50-70 in North America and Europe drink more than other demographics.

    Similarly, Grim looked specifically at beer consumption, whereas Parker considers unspecific alcohol consumption. Their different findings could arise if male scientists aged 50-70 drink more wine and spirits than beer, for example. Grim’s study did not look at consumption by individual ecologists – but rather the per capita beer consumption in two regions of the Czech republic, and compared those with the scientific productivity of ecologists based in those two regions.

    It’s all good fun, of course, but it does make me think how nice it must be to work in a field where it is apparently so easy to generate papers, compared with other perhaps more demanding fields of research. And that does make me reach for a drink in the evenings.

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    John Parker said:

    There are definite limitations to both Grim’s study and our own regarding this finding, and this was just one survey-item taken from a larger study of the social characteristics of highly cited environmental scientists. Our main points regarding beer are two-fold. First, before any causal relationship can be established we need more and much better data, just as the previous poster noted. Second, based on the Lortie article mentioned above, some of these findings likely reflect the fact that beer consumption is correlated with more important determinants of scientific productivity, such as the proportion of GDP spent on research.

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    Bob O'H said:

    Hm, so Parker shows that top ecologist drink more alcohol than the US average. Grim showed that better ecologists drank less beer than worse ones. I think we can conclude either (i) better ecologists shift to drinking champagne (I wondered where all that grant money went), or (b) bad ecologists have severe liver problems.

    Statement of Competing Interests: I am an ecologist, currently enjoying a glass or Amarula.

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    pleuni said:

    I just checked and Grim’s study did look at at consumption by individual ecologists. He also looked at the difference between two regions.

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