June 13, 2022 | Press Release

Migration of German Scientists: Men Are More Likely to Return to Germany

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Last summer, MPIDR Researcher Xinyi Zhao and colleagues published a study analyzing migration flows of scientists moving to and from Germany, using bibliometric data from over eight million scholarly publications from the online publication database Scopus. Their most recent paper, a follow-up study, appeared in the journal Scientometrics and shows that male researchers who had left Germany return to Germany at a higher rate than female researchers of the same academic cohorts and disciplines.

The team of researchers, led by Xinyi Zhao from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, analyzed the migration rates of internationally mobile researchers returning to Germany, tracking location data obtained from institutional affiliations identified from millions of Scopus publications.

The team investigated whether these academic migrants – researchers who start off publishing in Germany, then move to another country – remained outside Germany or eventually returned to Germany. Their study focuses on how these patterns varied by gender, academic age, discipline, destination country, and academic collaboration ties with German-based scholars while abroad.

Female researchers who leave Germany are less likely than their male counterparts to return

“In this context, we observed that the gender imbalance in the German science system is further exacerbated by migration trends among male and female researchers,” says Xinyi Zhao. This is because in almost all disciplines the subgroups who returned to Germany were more male-dominated than the subgroups who left Germany.

For example, among researchers who started publishing between 1998 and 2001, and who left Germany as junior scientists, 28% of men returned to Germany within 5 years, compared to only 22% of women. In previous analyses, the researchers found a more balanced gender composition of migrant researchers in disciplines with high levels of gender-imbalance in Germany, such as engineering, physics, and computer science. But the new study reveals that overall, migration patterns have tended to intensify gender disparities within the German science system over time.

Collaboration with Germany when abroad plays a positive role for returning

Across all disciplines, maintaining collaboration with Germany when abroad has shown to play an overall positive and moderate role in facilitating researchers to return to Germany.

The team also found that the researchers who moved from Germany to countries with Research and Development spending comparatively high (such as Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Australia) were less likely to return to Germany.

Returnee researchers have prolonged their academic careers

“This paper can be seen as a continuation of our 2021 study,” says Xinyi Zhao. In the previous study, the team found that internationally mobile researchers have made substantial contributions to the German science system in terms of the number citations normalized by the years of experience. The findings in the recent paper suggest that the returnees have considerably prolonged academic careers and appeared to benefit from their international research experience.

The recent paper is based on Scopus bibliometric data on over eight million publications from 1.1 million author profiles from researchers who have published at least once with an affiliation address from Germany between 1996 and 2020.

“We used multiple lenses for this multi-faceted topic and provide a detailed reference based on quantitative evidence for policy makers, which may facilitate cooperation with researchers leaving Germany, and supporting current and prospective returnee researchers in Germany,” says Xinyi Zhao.

Funding Acknowledgement

The study was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Original Publication

Zhao, X., Aref, S., Zagheni, E., Stecklov, G.: Return migration of German-affiliated researchers: analyzing departure and return by gender, cohort, and discipline using Scopus bibliometric data 1996–2020. Scientometrics (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s11192-022-04351-4

Authors and Affiliations

Xinyi Zhao, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock; University of Oxford

Samin Aref, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock; University of Toronto

Emilio Zagheni, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Guy Stecklov, University of British Columbia


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.