UK’s global research links: ‘firm base’or upper limit?

Analysis of co-authored journal papers details partnerships beyond EU

March 28, 2017
Academic journals
Source: iStock

As the UK triggers Article 50 to leave the European Union, ministers hope that universities can be encouraged to build stronger research collaborations with partners beyond the Continent.

Academics warn that this ignores the fact that institutions have already built such links where they are beneficial; and question whether such an approach could ever make up for the potential loss of the framework and funding provided by the EU.

New data from Elsevier’s SciVal and Scopus databases show that half the UK’s top 10 collaborating partners are countries outside the EU and that, within this top 10, UK academics co-authored more papers with their peers from non-EU countries than EU countries between 2011 and 2016.

The question is whether this represents, as one academic described it, a “very firm base” for future growth in non-EU research partnerships; or whether it represents long-standing links and efforts to reach beyond Europe, which may be difficult to expand.

The need for answers is urgent: UK academics receive about £1 billion a year in research funding from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme. The fact that universities may lose access to this funding after Brexit has prompted many to talk about building stronger ties with research partners in countries outside the EU.

Last month, a delegation of UK research groups went to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Boston to hold talks about making it easier to work with their counterparts in the US.

The Elsevier figures, collected by Times Higher Education, show that, across the UK’s top 10 research collaborators in terms of publication volume, academics published about 311,000 papers with researchers from non-EU countries between 2011 and 2016 and about 273,000 with those from EU-member countries.

The US is the UK’s top research partner in terms of the number of research papers produced by collaborative projects. UK-US joint research resulted in almost 150,000 journal articles between 2011 and 2016.


Co-authored publications

Co-authored publications growth (%)

United States


















The Netherlands












Source: Elsevier SciVal and Scopus

The UK’s second closest research partner in terms of publication output is Germany, with almost 78,000 co-authored papers published during this time, according to the data.

France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain are other EU countries among the top 10 in terms of co-authored publications volume. Meanwhile, non-EU countries ranking among the top 10 for collaborations are Australia, China, Canada and Switzerland.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU but it does have a series of bilateral agreements that enable it to be part of the single market. It is an associate member of Horizon 2020, so its academics can bid for research funding.

Graham Lord, professor of medicine at King’s College London and director of the National Institute for Health Research’s Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre, said that he was “slightly surprised” to hear that co-authored research outputs of UK-EU and UK-non-EU collaborations are “almost 50:50 given that there has been specific funding that has been used to grow EU research”.

He added that the UK’s ties to US and Australian research have always been strong. Traditionally, many researchers go to the US to complete postdoctoral studies or visiting professorships and maintain their research links when they return to the UK, he said.

“What has happened in the past 10 to 15 years, with the availability of EU-specific funds, is that area [of opportunity] has grown,” he added.

Brexit poses potential opportunities and risks in terms of research collaborations, he said, adding that the government needs to mitigate the risks of leaving the EU and help researchers to build stronger ties with the US.

“[The data show that outside the EU] we are starting from a very firm base that is already established and that is a very good platform on which we can build for the future,” he said.

Worldwide, the UK’s fastest-growing top collaborative partner is China, with co-authored publications up 77 per cent between 2011 and 2016. The number of co-authored papers with academics in Australia is also climbing rapidly, having grown by almost 60 per cent over the five-year period.

Joshua Mok Ka Ho, vice-president and chair professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that the data clearly show a growing trend of UK universities reaching out internationally for collaboration. “[This] would definitely enhance the leading position of UK universities in global higher education,” he added.

But Professor Mok said that UK institutions would have to change their approach to collaboration if they wanted to enjoy continued growth.

“UK academics and universities should become more flexible and responsive to changes and willingly adapt to other higher education systems when engaging in international collaborations,” he said.

The most fruitful areas for collaborative research with China are engineering, physics and astronomy, and computer science. Papers covering these disciplines together make up almost 40 per cent of all UK-China co-authored papers.

Meanwhile, medicine, and biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology are the most popular fields for UK scientists to work on with their US counterparts.

Source: Elsevier's SciVal and Scopus. One paper may be featured in more than one subject category.

Elsevier's SciVal and Scopus. One paper may be featured in more than one subject category.

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Reader's comments (1)

You made an error in your table of Co-authored publications: it is United Kingdom and not United States!

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