Increased public research funding ‘fails to bring more citations’

Increases in government research funding are absorbed by scientists at the ‘bottom of the hierarchy’, study suggests

December 31, 2017
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A rising class of internationally renowned scientists are “decoupling” from their national research base, according to new research that finds that working with peers overseas has a greater influence on citation impact than any upswings in governmental research funding.

In fact, increases in national public research spending tend to have a “negative or negligible” effect on the number of citations that a paper receives, according to an analysis of research in 42 countries published on the preprint server arXiv ahead of peer review.

One of the authors of the research said that the findings were “very interesting” but that the implications for policy were not yet clear.

The study builds on previous research published in Nature earlier this year by one of the authors, Caroline Wagner, Milton and Roslyn Wolf chair of international affairs at Ohio State University. With colleagues she found that public research and development spending is only weakly linked to the citation impact of a country’s research paper output.

The new work, led by Loet Leydesdorff, professor in the dynamics of scientific communication and technological innovation at the University of Amsterdam, took the data from the Nature paper and analysed them alongside fresh data to tease apart the effects that international collaboration and domestic funding have on citation impact.

The additional data included a decade’s worth of citation data from Web of Science and funding figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The research found that international collaboration boosted the impact of average research papers whereas additional government funding tended to have a small adverse effect on the number of citations the papers received.

“International collaboration has a statistically significant and positive effect on the citation impact of nations. Increases in government funding, however, tend to have a negative or negligible effect on citation impact,” say Professor Leydesdorff and colleagues.

The reason for this, they suggest, is that increases in government funding tend not to go to the authors or institutions that produce the most highly cited papers. Instead, any increase in funding is “absorbed” by “those at the bottom of the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, or it dissipates in the organisation”.

“This research suggests that the links between funding and outputs are disturbed by the rise of an international class of researchers who are decoupled from a national base,” they say.

Professor Leydesdorff told Times Higher Education that it is widely known that if governments spend more money on research they get more publications, but it is “not the case” that this corresponds with higher levels of citations.

He added that the implications for research policy were not yet clear, as the finding needs further testing.

It has become increasingly clear over the past 10 years that there is a “special layer” of scientists who comprise the top 1 per cent worldwide and are independent of the bottom layer of researchers, he said.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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