I have previously reported that there has been a silent revolution in science where countries like China, India, South Korea… that previously contributed few research articles… have started to catch up and even exceed the productivity of the western world.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US has published a report on Science and Engineering Publication Output Trends. Their subtitle is “Rise of Developing Country Output while Developed Countries Dominate Highly Cited Publications”.
The report echoes my earlier observations: lots of new countries are become scientific powers in terms of publication output, with China leading the charge. The major claim made by the report is that developed countries continue to dominate in terms of highly cited publications.
I should preface any further analysis by reminding us that such numbers should be interpreted with care. They count the number of research articles produced per country along with other metrics such as which fraction of those is highly cited. Counting citations and research papers is an imperfect way to measure scientific output. Bibliometrics is a field that is full of methodological issues. So we should not try to compare countries on this basis only. Furthermore, the report does not seem concerned with “per capita” analysis. For example, though the European Union appears to fare quite well according to this report&emdash;i.e., they indicate that it publishes more than the US—we know that it is no longer true once you factor in the number of citizens which is higher in the European Union (500 million people versus a bit over 300 million people in the USA). So it might be misleading. Generally, the report does not shy away from comparing small entities to large ones, and that is a problem.
Back to the main claim of the report: though China is rising in output, countries like the US still have a larger fraction of their research articles that are highly cited.
If you accept that Japan is a “developed country”, and you should, then you are forced to view it as an exception from this observation. What is surprising to me regarding the numbers is the fact that Japan seems to underperform compared to what we might expect. They have barely expanded their publication volume and their citation patterns seem to be closer to India than the US. Back in 2008, I already observed that Japan produces far fewer research articles per capita than other rich countries, so it is nothing new. It reminds me of an August 2017 article in “Nature: Budget cuts fuel frustration among Japan’s academics:
young researchers, facing unstable employment conditions and economic uncertainty, are forced to aim for results that can be accomplished in the short term and in which true originality and creativity are difficult to realize.”
Furthermore, the data presented in the paper clearly indicate that countries like China are bridging the gap with respect to how impactful their work is (see Fig. 2 in the report), on top of bridging the gap with respect to the total volume (see Table 1 in the report). It should be viewed as remarkable especially if you consider that most scientific papers are written in English and published by American or European publishers and that most of the most prestigious universities are in the US. And of course, China lags behind the US considerably in research spending, both in absolute dollars and in a percentage of GDP.
A better title for the NSF report might have been “China is catching to the USA, while Japan is being left behind”.
Does any of it matter? Many people believe, or assume, that great output in terms of research articles should cause economic prosperity and innovation. I have post entitled Does academic research cause economic growth? that makes the contrary point. That is, though China is catching up in terms of scientific output, this may be a consequence of their prosperity: they can now afford to have their very best minds work on producing research articles. It is much easier for rich countries to fund people so that they can publish in Nature. So being rich will allow you to catch up.
But Japan shows that you can be a very rich country and choose not to produce many great research articles. In the least, this establishes that you do not need to produce many great research articles to be prosperous.