06.01.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

International scientific collaboration has become a must, says report

© Roberto Barnaba/ICTP, Physics students from Iran, Senegal, Spain, Venezuela and Viet Nam working together at UNESCO’s Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy.

One in four scientific articles produced around the world were cosigned by a foreign collaborator in 2014, compared to one in five a decade earlier, notes the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, released in November 2015.

This global average masks wide variations from one region to another. The greatest level of international scientific collaboration is to be found in the Caribbean, where co-authorship leapt from 59% to 82% of articles between 2005 and 2014.

By 2014, 86% of scientific articles were the fruit of international scientific collaboration in low-income countries (compared to 82% in 2005) and almost 38% in lower middle-income countries (up from 32%). In high-income countries, one in three (34%) articles had a foreign co-author by 2014, up from 28%.

Although the highest rates of international scientific collaboration are to be found in low-income and lower middle-income countries, there are exceptions to the rule. Switzerland, which is considered a ‘champion of innovation’ by the European Union, recorded one of the highest rates of international co-authorship in 2014: 72% (up from 59% in 2005). As this is a much higher rate than for the European Union (46% in 2014), the phenomenon cannot be explained solely by Switzerland’s active participation in the European Union’s research programmes.

This trend could be tied to the fact that 51% of students enrolled in advanced research programmes in Switzerland are foreign-born, along with more than half of all PhD-holders at the country’s universities and close to half of the research personnel in the private sector. A 2010 Eurostat study cited by the UNESCO Science Report found that between 5% and 29% of European citizens with a doctorate had gained research experience abroad for three months or more in the past decade. The report cites another study from 2009 which concluded that research collaboration ‘survived beyond the academic’s stay’ in Germany. A third study found that, in six Asia-Pacific countries, ‘those scientists who had obtained research degrees overseas were also active participants in international research collaboration’.

The greatest leap of all in international collaboration between 2005 and 2014 took place in the Arab States of Asia, where it progressed from 44% to 77% of articles. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia saw a steep rise in scientific productivity over this period, thanks to incentive measures put in place to attract foreign researchers. In recent years, King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, for instance, has succeeded in attracting over 150 highly cited researchers from around the world as adjunct professors and now ranks among the world’s top 500 universities. The report observes that ‘internationally recruited faculty are expected to undertake research in Saudi Arabia and collaborate with Saudi faculty members. This policy has allowed [the university] to move up the field in international rankings, while boosting overall research output and building endogenous capacity in R&D’. Also of note is that Saudi Arabia counts more PhD students abroad than at home. Qatar, meanwhile, has attracted a number of leading research universities to its own Education City, including five US universities.

The next regions with the greatest ratios of international scientific collaboration are Central Asia (61–71% of articles), the European Free Trade Association, of which Switzerland is a member (58–70%), and Africa (54–65%). By contrast, less than half of scientific articles have foreign collaborators in the European Union (36–46%) and in Latin America (39–42%).

The lowest ratios of all are to be found in South Asia (26%) and Southeast Asia (28%), where China (24%) and India (23%) lean towards the bottom of the scale. The creation of the Economic Community of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015 should help to spur scientific co-operation among its members.

As a rule, small island developing states and countries with fledgling science systems tend to have the highest rates of international co-authorship. For instance, Afghanistan, Angola, Burkina Faso, Bhutan, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Maldives, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Republic of Congo, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste all recorded rates of more than 90% between 2008 and 2014.

Birds of a feather flock together (most of the time)

Not surprisingly, the main partners of European countries tend to be fellow Europeans, although the United States of America (USA) is the top collaborator for most. The USA returns the favour, with three out of five of its main collaborators residing in the United Kingdom, Germany or France. Unsurprisingly, its Canadian neighbour also makes the top five. The USA’s top collaborator, however, is the only country that can match it for the sheer volume of output, China.

Although high-income countries tend to be the partner of choice for most developing countries, including in the context of a donor-funded research project, there are some notable exceptions. Azeri and Turkmen scientists collaborate most with Turks, for instance, and scientists from Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe gravitate towards South Africa – which also happens to be the second-closest collaborator for Nigerians after the USA. Iraqi and Yemeni scientists coauthor most with Malaysians, Laotians most with Thais. The Russian Federation is the preferred partner for Belarusians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Ukrainians and Uzbeks.

In most of the aforementioned cases, we can see a neighbourhood effect, with scientists collaborating primarily with their peers from countries bordering their own, or situated within the same region. The notable exception is the preference for Malaysia among Yemini and Iraqi. A possible explanation may lie in the growing number of international students being drawn to Malaysia, in line with the government’s target of attracting 200 000 students by 2020. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of international students had already doubled to over 56 000 and Malaysia had become one of the top ten destinations for Arab students. Over this period, the number of Yemeni and Iraqi studying in Malaysia swelled by 170%, to 3 090 and 1 782 students respectively. Meanwhile, the number of Iranians studying at Malaysian universities more than tripled to 8 170. Iranians have also become the fourth-closest collaborators for Malaysian scientists.

Almost all sub-Saharan countries now count at least one other African country among their five top collaborators, a very different picture to a decade ago. In 2009, 6% of students from Southern Africa studied abroad, mainly in South Africa where they paid the same fees as domestic students. South Africa is ‘not only the leading host country in Africa but also ranks 11th among host countries worldwide’, explains the report. South Africa also happens to be one of the top collaborators for one in three sub-Saharan countries, other partners of choice being Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

In Latin America, on the other hand, the great majority of articles are co-authored by scientists from the USA, followed in most cases by Spain (7 countries) Brazil and Mexico (4 countries each), France, Germany and the United Kingdom. There is a high level of foreign research funding in Chile (17.5%), which hosts a cluster of European and North American astronomical observatories, and in Central America, where Panama (21%) hosts a branch of the Smithsonian Institution.

In Brazil, where foreign research funding is negligible, the State of São Paolo concentrates 73% of the country’s public research expenditure. The São Paolo Research Foundation (FAPESP) has cooperation agreements with public institutions in all the countries with which Brazilian scientists collaborate most, namely the USA, France, United Kingdom, Germany and Spain.

Another explanation for the strong contribution to Latin American research by the USA and Western Europe is that the diaspora tends to be based in this part of the world. The UNESCO Science Report estimates that four times more students are based in Western Europe or North America than in other Latin American countries. In 2013, the Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and the Organization of American States created a joint programme offering 500 scholarships up to 2018 for postgraduate education in science and engineering, in order to facilitate student exchanges within the Americas.

In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, ‘although collaboration is strongly linked to global knowledge hubs such as the USA, UK, China, India, Japan and France, there is evidence of an emerging Asia–Pacific knowledge hub’. Australia, for instance, is a leading partner of 17 countries from the region. In tandem, many of the smaller Pacific island states are now co-publishing articles with one other.

The challenge of pursuing both quality and relevance

The UNESCO Science Report highlights a dilemma. While underscoring the importance of international collaboration for the development of endogenous research, it stresses the challenge of ‘maintaining career paths for scientists that allow them to pursue both quality and relevance…On the one hand, there is a strong imperative to produce quality scientific research: the careers of researchers in the public sector depend upon their work being published in peer-reviewed journals’. On the other hand, ‘many national development plans are also seeking research relevance’.

Fiji, for instance, publishes more articles in international peer-reviewed journals per million inhabitants (120) than any other Pacific Island state. More than eight out of ten (83%) of these articles have a foreign co-author, mainly from Australia, the USA, New Zealand, United Kingdom and India (half of Fijians are of Indian origin).

According to the Fijian Ministry of Health, research collaboration often results in an article being published in a reputed journal but gives very little back in terms of strengthening health in Fiji. The UNESCO Science Report explains that ‘a new set of guidelines are now in place in Fiji to help build endogenous capacity in health research through training and access to new technology. The new policy guidelines require that all research projects initiated in Fiji with external bodies demonstrate how the project will contribute to local capacity-building in health research. The Ministry of Health itself is seeking to develop endogenous research capacity through the Fiji Journal of Public Health, which it launched in 2012. In parallel, the Ministry of Agriculture revived Fiji’s Agricultural Journal in 2013, which had been dormant for 17 years’.

What is driving the trend towards greater international scientific collaboration?

For the UNESCO Science Report, several factors explain this trend towards greater international scientific collaboration. On the one hand, there has been phenomenal growth in scientific publications (+23%) since 2008, which is itself a reflection of the 21% growth in the global pool of researchers between 2007 and 2013, who now number 7.8 million.

On the other hand, ‘the competition to publish in a limited number of high-impact journals has increased dramatically’, observes the report, ‘as has the competition among scientists to secure jobs in the most reputed research institutions and universities. Moreover, these institutions are themselves increasingly competing with one another to attract the world’s best talent’.

‘The Internet has brought with it “open science”, observes the report, ‘paving the way to online international research collaboration, as well as open access to publications and underlying data’. Many research topics lend themselves to international collaboration, such as in the fields of astronomy or ocean science where dozens of authors may cosign the same research paper.

At the same time, Internet has enabled a global move in the direction of ‘open education’ with the widespread development and availability of online university courses (MOOCS) provided by new global university consortia’.

We are also seeing an emerging global education and employment market for scientists and engineers in both the public and private sectors. Scientists have never been so mobile. Increasingly, it is considered a must to have an international composition of research staff in both research and innovation. As the saying goes, Silicon Valley in the USA was built on IC, a reference not to integrated circuits but to the contribution of Indians and Chinese to this innovation hub’s success’.

‘The fly in the ointment’, according to the report, ‘is that cross-border flows of knowledge in the form of researchers, scientific co-authorship, invention co-ownership and research funding are also strongly dependent on factors that have little to do with science. These days, mercantilism characterizes much of national policy-making in science, technology and innovation. All governments are keen to increase high-tech exports but few are prepared to discuss removing non-tariff barriers (such as government procurement) that may be constraining their imports. Everyone wishes to attract foreign research centres and skilled professionals but few are prepared to discuss frameworks for facilitating cross-border movement (in both directions)’ – as the Brexit vote has so aptly demonstrated. ‘The European Union’s decision to adopt ‘scientific visas’ as of 2016 to facilitate the cross-border movement of specialists is one attempt to remove some of these barriers’.

Source: adapted from UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030: the bibliometric data cited in this blog originate from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science and have been treated by Science–Metrix for the UNESCO Science Report

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