Research precariat

Insights from the OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors


Results from the latest OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors (ISSA2), which gathered information on nearly 12 000 corresponding authors of indexed articles and conference proceedings published in 2017, reveal important insights on the careers of researchers and scientists (see Bello and Galindo-Rueda, 2020, for further information on this study). This information can be used to complement the evidence collected in the context of the OECD project on research precarity. Given the focus of the project, the analysis of the ISSA2 data in relation to the employment characteristics and research performance of scientists and researchers presented below focuses on the restricted group of working-age scientific corresponding authors, who hold a doctoral degree and are employed in a non-profit organisation.


Job security

Nearly 45% of corresponding authors hold a fixed-term contract and although the majority are employed on indefinite contracts, 15% of them are employed on indefinite contracts that are not highly protected (e.g. by civil servant status, or tenure). Associate professionals (i.e. in a position subordinate to a senior researcher or expert, such as postdoctoral work) are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts than are authors holding other types of occupation (e.g. science professionals, higher education professionals). Evidence also suggests that age plays a particularly significant role in job security. Nearly 75% of authors that are younger than 35 and 55% of those that are aged between 35 and 44 years old hold a fixed term contract, whereas the majority of authors that are older than 45 are employed on indefinite highly protected contracts.

Figure 1. Job security of corresponding scientific authors, by author age and occupation

Percentage of corresponding authors



Corresponding authors holding fixed-term contracts are more likely to earn less than are other authors, even after controlling for a plethora of authors’ personal and job characteristics. This result may be indicative of wage discrimination against fixed-term researchers. Evidence also shows that authors employed on indefinite highly protected contracts may have an earnings disadvantage in higher income groups compared to those authors that hold indefinite, but less protected contracts (Figure 2). On average, earnings of authors in fixed-term positions are the lowest in life and physical sciences and among younger authors. Women authors earn on average 6 percent less than their male colleagues, even after accounting for individual and job-related characteristics. This gender gap in earnings persists in all science areas and it is wider in the physical sciences where the earning disadvantage of women reaches 11%.

Figure 2. Average gross (before tax and deductions) annual earnings, by author’s contract type

Percentage of corresponding authors within each income bracket

Fixed-term contract authors as well as younger authors are more likely to hold a secondary position. The probability of having multiple jobs decreases with the earnings of the authors on fixed-term contracts.


Research assessment and productivity

Indicators which are most commonly associated with research quality, such as journal prestige and citations, are found to be more widely used for authors employed on fixed term or indefinite, unprotected contracts, whereas the track record of publications and other research outputs is more important for authors with indefinite, highly protected contracts. Quantitative indicators of research performance are more likely to be used for hiring, job promotion and retention decisions for authors on fixed-term contracts than for those on indefinite, highly protected, contracts.

Corresponding authors on fixed-term contracts work similar hours to those on indefinite contracts (independently on the level of the security of the latter), though they spend a higher percentage of their time on research than their counterparts holding indefinite contracts do. By contrast, the latter are more likely to be involved in editorial work and be a member of a management or advisory board (Figure 3).

These groups of scientists also differ in terms of the quality of their research. In the period 1996-2017, authors on fixed-term contracts draw a higher number of citations and tend to publish in more prestigious journals than their counterparts on indefinite contracts do. One possible explanation for this difference, which accounts for author characteristics such as age, science field and gender, is that authors seeking to obtain permanent jobs may put extra effort in order to secure research funding and for their research work to be rewarded and recognised. However, authors on indefinite contracts outperform those on fixed-term contracts in terms of the number of publications. This latter finding is not surprising. While it may be partly explained by a selection effect, that is, in order to obtain an indefinite contract, one may already need an extensive publication record, authors on indefinite contracts often have lead roles and are involved in several research projects, resulting in more publications.

Figure 3. Differences in research activity and research performance between authors on fixed-term and indefinite contracts

Least square regression coefficients and confidence intervals, controlling for author characteristics

Note: The estimated coefficients report on the difference between authors with fixed terms contracts and those with indefinite contracts (including both highly protected and less protected contracts).  All regressions control for author characteristics including age, gender, working hours, sector of employment, number of citations and number of publications, as well as country and science field-fixed effects. Source: Authors’ calculations based on the OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors, 2018., June 2020.

Women scientists tend to publish fewer publications as corresponding authors than their male colleagues do. While studies on gender have documented similar patterns, a possible explanation for this finding is that women may be less likely to feature as corresponding authors when they publish than men (see Bello and Galindo-Rueda, 2020). By contrast, women spend more time on research and are more likely to be involved in research consultancy work, but they are less likely than men are to apply for or hold intellectual property rights.


Mobility of researchers

Corresponding authors on fixed-term contracts are more likely to live in a country different from the one where they got their doctorate. They are also almost three times more likely to be planning to move to another country, compared with authors on indefinite contracts (Figure 4). Whereas some will be moving out of choice, it is likely that many will be doing so as a necessary step to get their next contract. Covid-19 is disrupting the movement of researchers between countries and thus possibly curtailing the opportunities to continue a research career for some.

Figure 4. Past and future mobility

Percentage of corresponding authors


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