Research output at most of South Africa's leading universities has declined over the past eight years, according to government figures that measure productivity by articles in recognised publications.
Since the democratic elections in 1994, total publications have fallen from 5,582 to a projected 4,867 this year. But academics said the quantity of research may have begun to rise after a post-apartheid slump.
In order of output, South Africa's top six research universities are: Pretoria, Wi****ersrand, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Natal and the distance University of South Africa. Wits dropped from first place, while Stellenbosch forced Cape Town from second.
Of the 21 universities, seven increased their research output and just three increased it significantly - Pretoria, Rhodes and the North. The University of the North nearly doubled its output, though from a very low base. Three other historically black institutions also expanded their research slightly, probably as the result of funding agency efforts to stimulate and support research.
Some universities claim that the number of articles will rise this year for the first time since 1994 after they developed strategies to boost research in the face of declining funding. These include: identifying and supporting areas of research strength; creating centres of excellence and innovation; reducing duplication; and tapping new funding sources.
The universities said the drop in publications was not as bad as it appeared because the survey did not measure all research output, or all publications in academic journals.
Loyisa Nongxa, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Wits, said a moratorium had been placed on revising the list of accredited publications while the government implemented a new research measuring and funding policy.
"The list has not been revised for three years, which means articles in many journals not on that list are not reflected, including electronic publications."
He said the number of researchers at universities has declined and, post-1994, many academics conducted policy research for the government that was not counted on the list.
Professor Nongxa was a member of a government task team set up to suggest revisions to research policy in 1998. Its work is finished and the National Department of Education is devising a new list and implementing a research-funding policy that will be based on publications and postgraduate numbers, among other things.
Cambridge-educated Sibusiso Sibisi, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Cape Town, said that while there had been a decline in output using the old list, it was not possible to claim that research output had actually dropped without a proper study.
He said: "Our internal audits of publications indicate that in the past few years research output has been fairly level and if anything in some areas, such as science, there has been a slight increase."