US research growth has ‘relied on China collaboration’

New study of US-China co-authored papers suggests US output would have declined if collaborations were discounted

November 18, 2019
Source: Getty

US research output “would have declined” over the past few years if collaboration with China was removed from the picture, a study has suggested.

According to an analysis of research collaboration between the countries, the number of papers published by the US would have fallen by 2 per cent between 2014 and 2018 if its collaborations with China were discounted.

However, for China, research publications with US scholars “only enhanced growth” as the number of papers “grew regardless of whether collaboration with the US occurred”.

The study “challenges the overly simplified political rhetoric that China is dependent on or a threat to US scientific research”, according to the authors, Jenny Lee and John Haupt from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

“Our findings suggest the reverse: China is a major player in US-China research collaboration, via growth, via funding, and via intellectual leadership,” they say.

For the study, the authors looked at research indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus bibliometric database that was co-authored by Chinese and US researchers, either exclusively or with scholars from other countries.

The number of articles with US and China co-authors went up by 56 per cent from 2014 to 2018, and three-quarters of the total 175,665 collaborative publications over the period featured the two nations exclusively.

But taking China-US co-authored articles out of the equation would have meant that the annual amount of US-authored research would have fallen by about 6,400 articles from 2014 to 2018, while China’s would still have increased by 88,000.

“These results indicate that although both countries benefited from publications with the other, US growth was dependent on publications with China scholars; whereas China growth occurred regardless of whether China scholars collaborated with US scholars and that publications with US scholars contributed only slightly to this growth,” says the paper, published in the journal Higher Education.

The analysis also looked at the top 500 cited articles co-authored only by US and China researchers and who was the first author in such papers. This found that scholars affiliated with a Chinese institution – either exclusively or also while affiliated with a US institution – were first authors on more than three-quarters of the articles.

Furthermore, of the top 10 funders mentioned by US-China research over the period, seven were based in China and supported three and a half times more publications than the three most frequent US funders.

The study authors say their findings come against the backdrop of increasing hostility from the US authorities towards students and researchers from China, including visa restrictions and allegations of spying.

However, they say, the data suggest that even from a purely American perspective, the US has “more to lose than gain in cutting ties with China” on research.

“Limiting international ties and curbing knowledge production within a nation-state bubble will neither safeguard [the] USA’s place as a global superpower nor its universities as world-class, but rather potentially contribute to the country’s decline,” the study says.

Professor Lee told Times Higher Education that it was still clear that China had benefited from US co-authorship in terms of the citation impact it had given its research.

But she added that the rapid growth of China’s science base meant that it might not always need to rely on such a relationship in the future to boost impact.

“If the current climate affects US-China collaborations, it’s possible that the US audience might diminish, thereby decreasing China’s citation impact,” she said. “However, China’s steadily increasing scientific output might someday counteract possible negative effects from a lack of US collaboration.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities