Africa's total research output is equal in volume only to that of the Netherlands, according to a report detailing the host of problems hindering the continent's academy.
The Global Research Report on Africa, produced by Evidence, the UK-based subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, reveals that the combined research output of the continent's 44 countries is about ,000 papers a year, "much smaller than is desirable if the potential contribution of Africa's researchers is to be realised for the benefit of its populations".
"It is a really frightening statistic and not where Africa should be," said Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters.
"The continent has massive resources and potential, and there are all sorts of global commitments to support its development and education," he added, yet it is "under-realising" its potential.
The report apportions some of the blame to the wealthier African countries for failing to invest in their research base. In particular, it singles out Nigeria, which it says has a "disappointing" level of research investment relative to its comparatively high gross domestic product.
"Here is a country that has the most fantastic resources - from huge oil wells to a well-established university system," Dr Adams said. "It could have a great influence, but is returning nowhere near as much research as would be expected given the size of its economy."
He added: "Its knowledge base is not getting the long-term investment it needs. How does it expect the economy to work in 20 years' time when all the oil has gone?"
Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing exporters of students to universities in the UK, with the British Council predicting that the number it sends will increase fivefold to about 30,000 by 2015.
According to a study published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2008, the West African country's academy has expanded massively, with the number of universities growing from just one in 1960 to more than 90 today, plus 100 polytechnics and 150 technical colleges.
Yet Oye Ibidapo-Obe, president of the Nigerian Academy of Science and former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos, agreed with the conclusions of the Evidence report.
"Hitherto, the federal government has not considered the critical importance of research and development as a necessary condition for national development. The budget for science and technology is dismal," he said. "There is an urgent need for a change in attitude, to recognise that research is the basis for innovation and development."
Time to lead from the front
The Evidence report identifies South Africa as the continent's "outstanding research leader", with "by far" the greatest research output of any African country, much of it with a high impact. It is followed by Egypt and Nigeria in volume terms.
Together, the three countries dominate Africa's research production, and, along with Kenya in the east, which punches well above its economic weight, could have a "transformational role" in facilitating further growth across the continent, the report says.
They need to provide leadership as well as strong local investment and facilities to draw in and assist poorer partners, Evidence suggests.
It also identifies pockets of research excellence elsewhere in the continent, most notably in Malawi, which has a small GDP but is "very productive" for its size, producing work of high impact that exceeds the world average.
Evidence also considers Zimbabwe, which, despite its dire economic and political problems under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, retains a strong research legacy, producing more research papers than any other African country relative to its GDP.
"The economy is a basket case, but the scholars in Zimbabwe are still producing good research," Dr Adams said.
The report identifies regional groupings of countries with strong collaborative links due to their historical, cultural and linguistic ties.
These include a North African group of Islamic countries, a West and Central African group where French is the dominant language, a Central African anglophone group, and the members of the Southern African Development Community.
The most significant areas of research across the continent relate to natural resources, agriculture and health.
The report stresses that the brain drain from Africa - many of its best students take their higher degrees overseas and too few return - must be stopped if the continent is to improve its performance.
To lure those scholars back, it will have to take strong action to tackle the "chronic lack of investment" in research facilities, it says.