Question over political control as Covid collaboration falls back

Update to study of coronavirus research during the pandemic shows falling rate of international co-authorship

December 4, 2020
Covid vaccine
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The rate of international collaboration in coronavirus research has fallen as the pandemic has developed, raising questions about the extent to which external influences are shaping co-authorship patterns, a study says.

Researchers from the US and China analysed data on about 50,000 coronavirus articles published in journals across three periods of the pandemic and compared this with research in the same field before Covid-19 struck.

The analysis, which updates work by the same authors that looked at pandemic research up to April, suggests that the rate of international collaboration fell in late spring and through the summer and early autumn.

Average team sizes for collaborations have also dropped, although the average number of countries involved on each internationally co-authored paper did increase.

The paper notes that general work on research collaboration has “shown that scientific team sizes have grown over time, and that international collaboration has grown over time, but this pattern appears to be reversed in coronavirus research during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

There were also shifting patterns among the countries involved in coronavirus research that generally tracked the prevalence of the disease in different nations across the period.

For instance, China was involved in almost half (47 per cent) of coronavirus publications from January to early April, but this had fallen to just 16 per cent by mid-July to October.

The US and European countries featured in about a third of articles by the latter time period, while countries increasingly hit by Covid-19 over the course of the year, such as Brazil and India, were also more involved.

The study, published as a preprint on the Social Science Research Network, concludes that the general fall in the rate of international collaboration “could be due to physical or political obstacles”.

“The physical obstacles have included travel bans across the world, hindering researcher mobility. Generally, we know that the vast majority of research partnerships begin face to face, thus the travel bans may be significantly curtailing formation of research collaborations,” it says.

“There may also be significant political influence on the patterns. Political obstacles to collaboration may be more subtle than the physical ones, but they may also be influencing the rate of activity and connection.”

As a potential example, the study points to a move by the Chinese government in April 2020 to require all Covid-19 articles to be centrally reviewed.

Caroline Wagner, Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, an author of the study alongside Caroline Fry of the University of Hawai’i and Xiaojing Cai at Zhejiang University, said a key theme emerging from this paper and their previous work had been how existing collaborations and elite networks may have been reinforced by restrictions on travel.

“The implications are the developing countries and less famous organisations are not in the ‘in crowd’ – it has meant a very rapid response and vaccines, but it has meant less diffusion of knowledge and perhaps less ‘localised’ understanding,” she said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Political role in collaboration drop questioned

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