Bryan Alexander conjectured that Americans might be reaching peak scholarship. That is, whereas we are used to science as an ever expanding industry… it could be that American scientific production has reached its maximum.

You should read Alexander’s article for the reasoning behind such a conjecture, but I was interested to check whether we could gather hard numbers related to this conjecture. So I went to the SRI index to see how many papers per year various countries publish.

I do not trust the numbers for 2012, which show a decline of the number of American publications. However, the plot clearly shows Western Europe distancing the US, and Asia passing everyone, with a very sustained slope.

Maybe it is fairer to compare the US with similar countries like Canada and Australia. When we do so, we see that whereas the number of publications in the US grew by 50% in the last 16 years, it doubled in Canada and almost tripled in Australia.

It is not just the growth that is slow in the US. The per capita numbers are low as well. The US has 9 times the population of Canada, but it only publishes 6 times the number of papers!

    USA   Canada   Australia 
1996 322,840 40,421 22,720
2012 493,337 79,017 62,200
2012/1996 1.5 2.0 2.7

Of course, it is only one data source, but it supports the theory that Americans might have reached a scholarship plateau.

5 Comments

  1. Don’t forget that it’s been a recession and a slash in government funding for many years in a row. It didn’t recover yet and seems to be getting only worse (i.e., less money if you adjust for inflation).

    Comment by Leonid Boytsov — 1/5/2014 @ 21:41

  2. It would be interesting to see this data as avg paper/author for each country. That is, are the same amount of authors writing less papers (suggesting, perhaps, a decrease in funding)? Or, are there less authors writing the same amount of papers (suggesting a decrease or movement of authors)?

    Comment by David Allyn — 2/5/2014 @ 13:46

  3. This is quite an interesting analysis that confirms the predictions of Derek de Solla Price made in 1963 in “Little Science, Big Science”.

    de Solla Price showed in this book that there was a roughly constant doubling time for different forms of scientific output (number of journals, number of papers, number of scientists, etc.) of about 10-15 years over history. Price also pointed out that the doubling time of the number of scientists is much shorter than the doubling time of the overall human population (~50 years).

    Price makes the startling but obvious outcomes of this observation very clear: either everyone on earth will be a scientist one day, or the growth rate of science must decrease from its previous long term trends. He then goes on to argue that the most likely outcome is the latter, and that scientific growth rates will change from exponential to logistic growth and reach saturation sometime within 100 years from the publication of his book in 1963.

    This book is sadly out of print, but I do recommend anyone interested in long terms growth treands in science to read it. It certainly left a big impression on my thinking, which I wrote about a few years ago here: http://caseybergman.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-logistics-of-scientific-growth-in-the-21st-century/

    Comment by Anonymous — 4/5/2014 @ 15:36

  4. I’m not sure number of papers is necessarily a good metric.

    If ‘number of papers’ is the success metric in some country, then papers is what you will get, whether that’s LPU’s or low acceptance standards, or outright fraud.

    Citation or impact factor weighted metrics or patent citations might be more helpful (though still subject to gamification).

    I don’t see peak science anytime soon though, either at the country or global level. Even in developed countries, there are still non-trivial gains to be obtained by broadening talent pool to include more women, for example.

    Comment by Anonymous — 8/5/2014 @ 18:39

  5. @Anonymous

    The way science is assessed does not differ dramatically between the United States and Canada, say. There is not more pressure in Canada to produce papers than in the United States. So I think that the comparison is fair.

    The fact that production is increasing faster in Canada than in the United States is meaningful.

    Even in developed countries, there are still non-trivial gains to be obtained by broadening talent pool to include more women, for example.

    No doubt, but are Americans broadening the talent pool?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 9/5/2014 @ 10:52

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