Russian tension with West ‘further weakening’ research links

Data on international collaboration show cross-border authorship share falling over recent years 

September 18, 2018
Russian tank

Russia’s political stand-off with the West has been blamed for a significant drop in its researchers’ levels of international collaboration.

Figures from Elsevier’s Scopus database show the share of Russian publications that involved co-authorship with academics based outside the country fell from 28.2 per cent in 2013 to 23.6 per cent last year.

This bucks the trend of every large research nation and means that Russia was overtaken in terms of international collaboration share by countries such as Japan, South Korea and Brazil, which have themselves struggled to internationalise to the degree of other nations. Meanwhile, rapidly globalising China is also now close to surpassing its large neighbour.

Russia’s overall research output still increased at a rapid rate, rising 81 per cent from 2013 to 2017, but the data cast doubt on whether the country’s attempts at scientific development could be hampered by political tensions with the West.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said that international research collaboration in Russia had “always been weak at aggregate level” but that it was “a fair surmise to say that the era of sanctions and growing international tension is likely to have contributed to a further weakening”.

Professor Marginson cautioned that a lot of the country’s research was published in Russian, which meant that the whole picture was not captured in databases such as Scopus, but that science in the country also suffered from a persistent isolationism that stemmed from the Soviet era.

“Soviet academics drew knowledge from the rest of the world, but did not put knowledge of ‘strategic significance’ into the world, which, in practice, meant knowledge in many fields, especially the sciences,” he said.

“This one-way approach has continued in the post-Soviet period in Russia, more, I think, by habit than design.”

The continuing globalisation of science meant that such a strategy “is now wrong, if it was ever right”, Professor Marginson said. “To be effective, a country needs not only to access global science but to engage in it.”

Professor Marginson added that there were exceptions to the situation in Russia – with some subjects such as physics being more internationally engaged and certain universities having a stronger global outlook – “but on the whole Russian science and academic life are decoupled from the main game”.  

One hope will be that specific efforts to improve Russian universities’ international standing through initiatives such as Project 5-100, which aims to get five institutions from the country into the top 100 of global rankings by 2020, could help to turn the tide in the long term.

Figures for the 21 universities that form part of the 5-100 project do show a different trend, with 30.1 per cent of publications in 2017 featuring international co-authorship.

Anatoly Oleksiyenko, an associate professor in higher education at the University of Hong Kong and co-editor of a new book on the Soviet legacy in Russian and Chinese universities, said that although “the lingering suspicion about [the] true purposes of global outreach” still affected international collaboration in Russia, “the situation was slightly different for the 5-100 institutions”.

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