Tech giants lagging on publishing record

Analysis concludes universities are ‘moving towards a nearly exclusive monopoly’ over research articles

August 17, 2018
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Technology giants such as Apple and Google are unlikely to usher in a new golden age of corporate research, according to an analysis that suggests that companies are becoming increasingly reluctant to disseminate their research and development findings.

The findings add to long-standing concerns that firms are retreating from funding basic research, instead increasingly outsourcing it to universities.

By 2014, close to 80 per cent of papers globally were published by university researchers, an increase of about 10 percentage points since 1980, the analysis found. Industry’s share had halved to about 3 per cent, while governments were also publishing a diminishing proportion of papers.

“Universities are moving towards a nearly exclusive monopoly over the publication of scientific articles,” concludes “Vanishing industries and the rising monopoly of universities in published research”, published in Plos One. “Industries, on the other hand, are vanishing from this production model.”

The analysis compares the publishing and patenting records of Bell Labs – the legendary former research division of telecoms firm AT&T, whose work contributed to eight Nobel prizes – and modern-day tech behemoths Google and Apple.

Some have claimed that Google’s research drive could make it a new Bell Labs – the company’s machine learning acquisition Deepmind made the front cover of Nature in 2016 with an AI tool able to beat world champion players at the board game Go.

Yet Google is publishing at most a couple of hundred papers a year, compared with the thousands created by Bell Labs in its 1980s heyday, the analysis shows.

Apple, meanwhile, has published fewer than 10 papers a year since the turn of the century. Instead, the focus of Google and Apple is on patents – by 2014 both companies were filing more than 2,000 a year.

“It’s true, there was a golden age of industrial research, when industrial research was in conversation with academia,” said co-author Cassidy Sugimoto, an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. “That golden age is over.”

The golden age may have been down to the fact that AT&T was obliged to spend a proportion of its profits on research and development as a condition of its telecoms monopoly, said co-author Vincent Larivière, an associate professor of information science at the University of Montreal. The company “had no choice but to invest” in research, he said.

Some have suggested introducing similar requirement for companies such as Google and Facebook.

More broadly, there are several overlapping reasons why corporations are no longer publishing like they once did, the authors say. The proportion of basic research funded in the US by industry has remained steady, data show – but it could be that companies are simply outsourcing this to universities, said Professor Larivière.

Companies could be getting more secretive, as they fear giving away trade secrets and so “losing competitive advantage”, the paper adds.

Corporate researchers may also feel frozen out of the university academic-dominated publishing system, suggested Professor Sugimoto. University academics had also been under pressure to go on a “crazy publishing frenzy”, added Professor Larivière, partly under the influence of university rankings.

Although this new analysis shows that companies are taking out a greater proportion of patents, the findings could also shed some light on the broader puzzle of why productivity gains in Western economies appear to have slowed in recent decades.

University and industry research “used to walk hand in hand”, said Professor Larivière. “Now these two poles talk apart. And that has implications for the capacity of industry to innovate.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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