Nature Index: Japan falls behind on scientific research

Country’s publications in high-quality journals decline in relative and absolute terms

March 22, 2017
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Japan’s share of science research in high-quality journals dropped by 6 per cent between 2012 and 2016, following a period of “underinvestment” in science, according to data from the Nature Index.

While other leading science nations also saw a relative decline due to China’s rapid growth, Japan’s output fell in absolute terms, too; the number of publications by Japanese researchers in high-quality natural science journals, as defined by the index, dropped by 8.3 per cent over the past five years.

The Nature Index database tracks the author affiliations of research articles published in a group of 68 high-quality natural science journals, which have been selected by an independent panels of active scientists.


Macmillan Publishers Ltd

The findings, which are featured in the Nature Index 2017 Japan supplement, are backed up by data from Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science database showing that Japan published fewer articles in 2015 than in 2005 in 11 of 14 fields.

In materials science and engineering, historically strong areas for Japan, the number of publications fell by more than 10 per cent, but the sharpest decline was in computer science, where output fell by 37.7 per cent.

However, Japan increased its output in three fields: medicine, mathematics, and astronomy.

Meanwhile, while the total number of articles in Elsevier’s Scopus database increased by about 80 per cent between 2005 and 2015, Japan’s output grew by just 14 per cent. This means that its share of global output fell from about 7.4 per cent to 4.7 per cent.

Macmillan Publishers Ltd

David Swinbanks, founder of the Nature Index, said that Japan although has long been a world leader in scientific research, these data illustrate “the scale of Japan’s challenge in the coming decade”.

“While science budgets have risen elsewhere, there has been a period of underinvestment since 2001 that has hindered Japan’s institutions’ ability to produce high-quality research,” he said.

The Nature Index supplement adds that full-time research positions for Japan’s early career researchers are becoming less common as the government has reduced funding for universities to pay staff salaries.

The number of research associates under the age of 40 and on contracts, rather than employed in a permanent position, more than doubled between 2007 and 2013, according to the Japan Association of National Universities.

However, Mr Swinbanks noted that university reform has become one of the Japanese government’s top priorities and welcomed its plans to increase the number of university researchers under 40 by 10 per cent by 2020.

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