A new study by a Czech ornithologist, Tomas Grim, in which he studied not the birds that are his usual subject, but his fellow avian scientists … and their beer-drinking habits. The study, published last month in Oikos, was titled A possible role of social activity to explain differences in publication output among ecologists. Here is the abstract:
Publication output is the standard by which scientific productivity is evaluated. Despite a plethora of papers on the issue of publication and citation biases, no study has so far considered a possible effect of social activities on publication output. One of the most frequent social activities in the world is drinking alcohol. In Europe, most alcohol is consumed as beer and, based on well known negative effects of alcohol consumption on cognitive performance, I predicted negative correlations between beer consumption and several measures of scientific performance. Using a survey from the Czech Republic, that has the highest per capita beer consumption rate in the world, I show that increasing per capita beer consumption is associated with lower numbers of papers, total citations, and citations per paper (a surrogate measure of paper quality). In addition I found the same predicted trends in comparison of two separate geographic areas within the Czech Republic that are also known to differ in beer consumption rates. These correlations are consistent with the possibility that leisure time social activities might influence the quality and quantity of scientific work and may be potential sources of publication and citation biases.
Essentially, that can be summarized as “the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.”
The New York Times summarized the findings like this:
The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.
But as Dave Bacon, the Quantum Physicist, takes the study (and the Times) to task in a post entitled Ecologists Can’t Handle Their Beer Like Physicists, there are more than a few problems with the study and its conclusions. First of all, the paper studied “avian ecologists,” essentially bird scientists, and extended out the findings to include all scientists, a conceit Bacon didn’t think was very reasonable, writing. “I mean, come on, has anyone ever heard of bird watchers being known for their beer drinking abilities? I suspect if I had to pick the group of scientists least likely to be able to take their beer, avian ecologists would be right up there on my list. Show me a study about Czech physicists damaging their publication record by too much beer consumption, and then you’ll get my attention.”
I’d also note that the study covers the amazingly huge sample size of less than twenty, that the beer consumption rates are huge for the outliers (Czech, burp!), that there was no description of the methodology for choosing the survey sample (were they his friends, his colleagues? Since the sample was chosen from the author’s field, it sure sounds like it), that any effect, if it is there, is coming from the very high end of the beer consumption spectra (which is fairly spectacular consumption), and certainly a linear regression seems like a spectacularly poor notion of how beer drinking has an effect on scientific output., and that no attempt to separate out the effect of different quality universities and the different geographic consumption levels was made.
It’s certainly a strange topic to be published in a serious academic journal. Since the author admits to enjoying as many as twelve beers in a single session (making him a binge drinker by American standards), it’s clear he’s not arguing for scientists to drink less. [Note to neo-prohibitionists: notice that Professor Bacon is able to drink more than you think he should and still manages to be a respected ornithologist at Palacky University in the Czech Republic. Let me know when you’re ready to concede your definition of binging is ridiculous, and wrong.] I wonder if the ornithologists only drink brands like Red Tail Ale or one of the other 300 beers with a bird on their label?