International networks start to drive research

Networks of collaborating scientists spanning the globe are increasingly shaping the research landscape. The share of papers co-authored by researchers from different countries is steadily growing. More than one third of the papers is now based on an international collaboration, up from one quarter fifteen years ago. On top of this, these internationally co-authored papers have a higher citation impact. Each foreign partner in a paper increases its potential to be cited up to a tipping point of approximately 10 countries. The dynamics of these international networks together with sustained investments in scientific research by an increasing number of countries produce a much more multipolar world. Not surprisingly, China is rising fast. Ranking countries on the number of scientific papers produced, China is now number 2 with a share of 10 % of the international scientific production. It is expected to become number 1 within a few decades. Brazil and India are also emerging as powerful players on the international scene. But the rise of new scientific centres is not restricted to the BRICS countries. In the Middle East, both Turkey and Iran are investing strongly with an enormous growth of authors and papers as a result. While Iran published a bit more than 700 papers in 1993, in 2008 this was already more than 13 thousand. Turkey published in 2008 four times as much as in 1996 and its number of researchers has grown by 43 %. Still, the current heavyweights are dominating the rankings based on citation numbers. With a decreasing share in total publications (down from 26 top 21 %), the United States still attracts the majority of citations, more than 30 % of all publications cite work originating in the United States. Chinese papers have significantly less impact: with 10 % of the share of papers, the Chinese collect only 3 % of the citations.

These are some of the highlights of the recent report of the Royal Society (UK), “Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century“. This report is based on an analysis of all papers in the Scopus database (Elsevier) published between 2004 and 2008, compared with the production between 1993 and 2003. The report combines these findings with five case studies of prominent international research initiatives in health research, physics, and climate research. I think this report is a goldmine of interesting facts and sometimes surprising developments and a must read for all science policy actors.

For European Science Policy makers, the report should moreover give pause for reflection. The fast rise of international networks is particularly relevant for Europe because of the rise of anti-immigration parties that currently have a big impact on policy in general, and thereby also on Science Policy. The share of internationally co-authored papers in the European countries is rising, which means that the researchers in Europe need to be supported in creating more international collaborations. This simply cannot be combined with an anti-immigration policy focused on blocking international exchange of scientific personnel. In Europe, very different from Asia, the general political climate therefore seems to be out of step with the developments in the world of science and scholarship. A creative Science Policy requires an open attitude eager for international exchange of ideas and people, not least also with colleagues in Turkey and Iran. And Turkey should become a member of the European Union as soon as possible.

The report also shows nicely that internationalization is not a simple process. Overall, the number of internationally co-authored papers is on the rise. And in the current scientific centres, this goes together with an increase of the share of international papers in the total national scientific production. But in China and Brazil, the share of international papers is decreasing, while the absolute number of internationally co-authored papers is rising. Turkey and Iran show comparable trends, albeit less clear.The explanation is that in these countries the national research capacity is building up faster than the growing international collaborations.

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