Cross-border Covid-19 collaboration ‘yet to take off’

Analysis of data on publications also shows emerging field of Covid-19 study ‘remains anchored’ to early Chinese research  

June 4, 2020

Covid-19 scholarship has so far featured less international collaboration than would generally be expected from research, and it also “currently remains anchored” to early publications that emerged from China.

Those are two of the findings from a new report by science technology firm Digital Science on the rapidly growing field of research that has sprung up due to the pandemic.

Using a search query of its Dimensions database, which indexes peer reviewed and pre-print articles, it estimates that up to the end of May more than 42,000 scholarly articles have been published on aspects of Covid-19, “a volume that surpasses the total yearly output of even the largest research institutions”. More than 8,000 organisations and at least 70,000 individual researchers have been behind the activity, according to the report, titled How Covid-19 is changing research culture.

Initial research was inevitably centred around China, before the US and Europe ramped up their output through April and May. However, the report notes that China’s “first-mover advantage” had “established its publications as foundational to this new field in highly respected journals”.

This trend can be seen in citations data, so even though US and Europe-based researchers are now publishing more in key journals such as The Lancet or New England Journal of Medicine, the “lion’s share” of overall citations have been received by China’s early publications in such places.

“As Covid established as a field in late January, the key papers that founded the field started to appear and these papers were heavily populated by Chinese authors,” says the report. “While research in the field is clearly moving quickly, it currently remains anchored to China’s early publications.”

The report also notes that, so far, Covid-19 research “has been quite localised to specific countries. This is indeed far more the case than we might generally expect.”

For instance, even in April and May, most publications on the disease involved researchers from one country, although a trend towards more collaborations between institutions has begun to emerge.

The report suggests several factors could be behind the data, such as China’s early dominance in the emerging field and the fact that it takes time for networks in a new research subject to become established.

It also points to the possible pressure medical researchers may feel to “make headway with a vaccine”.  

“As a result, they are, in the early period of their research, focusing on developing their understanding of Covid-19 rather than developing international collaborations,” the report says.

“This tendency may be compounded by the nature of funding that is emerging in many countries, which is small scale and targeted at small groups or individuals.”

Meanwhile, the analysis also notes how some major changes in research publication over the past decade have seemingly accelerated in the realm of Covid-19 research.

Examples include pre-prints making up a quarter of Covid-19 research output by the start of May in a discipline (medicine) that has “not historically been comfortable with pre-print publication”.

It also notes the significant growth in “bronze” open access publications – where publishers have opted to make articles free to access – although the continuation of a sizeable number of papers being behind a paywall “in this critical area is an interesting social artefact”.

Daniel Hook, head of Digital Science and co-author of the report, said: “Although the situation around Covid-19 is unfortunate, it is allowing us to see the development of a new field, and the culture change associated with that development in ‘real time’.

“The research world has moved faster than many would have suspected possible. As a result, many issues in the scholarly communication system, that so many have been working to improve in recent years, are being highlighted in this extreme situation.”

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