In some recent work, Bosquet and Combes look at French data (only) and correlate the quality of economics departments with some of their underlying features. Why did they chose France?: “The most frequent way of becoming a full professor is via a national contest that allocates winners to departments in a largely random way.”
So what do we learn? First, large departments are in per capita terms not so much more productive and not at all doing better in terms of quality. Proximity to other economics departments also does not matter.
Heterogeneity among researchers in terms of publication performance has a large, negative explanatory power.
I suspect some of this is causal. It is good for departments to get rid of their dead wood and good when departments insist that everyone produce.
There is also this:
The second department characteristic that has the highest explanatory power of individual publication performance is the diversity of the department in terms of research fields (within economics).
I wonder there how much the allocation of researchers is truly random. I find the reverse causality story more plausible, namely that the strongest departments have the resources and heft to cover a larger number of fields, as it is less likely that having people scattered across many fields makes the department as a whole more productive.
In your spare time, you might also ponder this:
Finally, other department characteristics have interesting properties.
Contrary to common intuition, more students per academic do not reduce publication performance.
Women, older academics, stars in the department and co-authors in foreign institutions all have a positive externality impact on each academic’s individual outcome.
For the pointer I thank Mills Kelly.