Many of today’s most pressing scientific challenges, such as identifying alternative energy sources, require a multidisciplinary approach. However, traditional methods for assessing research output cannot adequately measure multidisciplinary research output.

Current methods of organizing, and thus analyzing, science are based on journal categories. Yet, since journals are based on single disciplines, this classification system cannot capture the changing landscape. This means it is impossible for research executives and government policymakers to gain insight into which institutions, countries and regions are leading in such fields as alternative energy.

Leaders in alternative-energy research
Alternative-energy research is, by its very nature, multidisciplinary, and any attempt to identify leaders in this field must take this into account. In order to rank leaders in alternative-energy research, Boyak and Klavans first identified alternative energy-related paradigms using search terms from relevant websites. They discovered that 1,100 paradigms contained alternative energy research, and divided these into three equally distributed topic groups:

1. Solar/PV
2. Fuel cells
3. Environmentally related (efficiency + renewable + biomass + biodiesel + biofuel + nuclear + wind + cogeneration + clean coal + carbon + bioenergy + security + hydroelectric + geothermal)

They then counted the alternative-energy papers for over 3,000 major academic and government players within the global research community, ranked them according to output and calculated distinctive competencies for each of the top-50 institutions on the list.

To rank the research leaders in this field (see Figure 1), they found where the 1,100 paradigms from the three topic groups belonged to a distinctive competency and counted the number of alternative-energy papers that were in distinctive competencies for each university/laboratory.

This information was aggregated to identify country (see Figures 2, 3 and 4) and regional leaders in alternative-energy research.

However, research executives need accurate research performance information to identify areas of research strengths and make strategic decisions. Developing an accurate picture of how universities and countries are performing is critical to advancing the frontiers of science.

A new way to measure multidisciplinary impact

Senior Development Advisors Kevin Boyak and Dick Klavans, together with Elsevier, have developed a new method of measuring output in multidisciplinary research. Based on co-citation analysis, SciVal Spotlight displays research performance from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Using Scopus as its underlying data source, SciVal Spotlight draws upon 5.6 million research papers published between 2003 and 2007, along with another two million reference papers that these publications cite heavily. This content was divided into about 80,000 paradigms, each of which is centered on a separate topic (e.g. alternative energy) in science.

These paradigms were used to identify an institution’s distinctive competencies. Researchers tend to focus within a unique set of related paradigms, which form natural clusters based on the research networks at their institution. These clusters can be seen as the institution’s distinctive competencies, and are the areas in which the institution is a research leader. One of the unique features of this method is that it can identify those distinctive competencies that link multiple disciplines within an institution, indicating that research within the university is not being done in isolated silos. If work does not appear as part of a distinctive competency, this does not mean that it is not good work, but rather that it is isolated, and not part of a larger network.

An institute is identified as a research leader if it displays substantial activity and impact in the topics associated with the paradigm.

True leadership is in distinctive competencies

Using this new methodology to measure which institutions, countries and regions are research leaders in alternative energy-related science gave some surprising and insightful results (see box for method).

At an institute-level, the top-10 world institutes are almost all in the United States, with Germany a close second (see Figure 1). In fact, the United States is ahead in all of the topic groups on a single-country basis; however, the only area in which it has overwhelming leadership is in environmentally related research. In fuel cells and solar energy, leadership is more diffuse, and Germany and China are significant players in these two fields.

In fact, while Germany’s total number of papers remains lower than the United States’, its percentage of papers in distinctive competencies in both solar-energy and fuel-cells research is higher. This indicates that Germany is a formidable competitor in these areas, particularly in solar energy, where it has 335 papers in distinctive competencies compared with 454 for the United States.

Identifying distinctive competencies rather than simply replying on citation counts shows where competition could come from in the future. While Germany may not yet be leading the United Stated on alternative-energy research, it is certainly developing deep expertise in a wide range of disciplines, which could result in breakthroughs in the near future.

If our most urgent scientific challenges, such as alternative-energy, require a multidisciplinary approach, then we urgently need to find ways of measuring output in these areas. Future breakthroughs in such areas are expected to emerge from the institutes and countries drawing on the widest range of their research capabilities to answer specific questions. And this methodology helps us see where those breakthroughs are likely to emerge.

Institution Country Total
1 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center US 309
2 National Renewable Energy Laboratory US 271
3 Hahn-Meitner-Institut DE 240
4 Forschungszentrum Julich DE 234
5 Pennsylvania State University US 168
6 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration US 121
7 University of California at Irvine US 101
8 Osaka University JP 97
9 California Institute of Technology US 97
10 Harvard University US 84

Figure 1 – Top-10 institutions for alternative-energy research

Country Total papers Papers in DCs % in DCs
United States 893 454 51%
Japan 455 149 33%
Germany 370 335 91%

Figure 2 – Top-three countries for solar/photovoltaic research

Country Total papers Papers in DCs % in DCs
United States 1006 377 38%
China 574 157 27%
Japan 531 94 18%

Figure 3 – Top-three countries for fuel-cells research

Country Total papers Papers in DCs % in DCs
United States 1997 797 40%
China 425 75 18%
Japan 216 0%

Figure 4 – Top-three countries for environmentally related energy research

Useful links:

SciVal Spotlight
Research leadership redefined – measuring performance in a multidisciplinary landscape. Listen to the webinar here
USA Today, ‘US institutes lead in environmental research expertise’

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