Recent research has shown that international research collaboration is growing rapidly (1). This is unsurprising given the fact that many of the most pressing challenges in science are global in nature (2). Think about climate change or the H1N1 flu virus: these clearly cross borders and demand a global response. Analyzing data on international collaborative article output by country reveals that smaller countries proportionally carry out more international research than those in larger countries (see Table 1).

Professor Jean-Claude Thill from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte explains: “There seems to be an inverse relationship between the degree of internationalization and the size of the country. Small countries offer fewer opportunities for interaction within their borders and therefore present a strong incentive (push factor) for international collaboration. Conversely, large countries offer internally plenty of research collaboration opportunities.”

Professor Richard Sternberg from the University of Washington discusses the particular situation of the USA in this ranking: “In Europe, where many countries are tied together in a union, when a French scientist does field work with a Spanish scientist on a beach near the French/Spanish border and they publish a paper together, it’s considered international collaboration. In America, when a scientist from Oregon does field work with a scientist from North Carolina on a beach on the outer banks of Carolina (5,000km away from Oregon) and they publish a paper together, it’s not considered international collaboration.”

Professor Markus Fischer from the University of Bern, Switzerland – the country that ranked first for international collaboration – agrees: “My first idea is that small countries have higher outside collaboration”. Switzerland occupies first place, even in comparison to smaller countries. Professor Fischer suspects that additional factors, such as high overall output, higher-quality research and some cultural and/or language differences may explain some of the remaining variation.

Funding cross-border research

Funding issues can also play a part, encouraging internationalization in some regions while stifling it in others. Professor Stenberg says: “In the European Community, scientific research money is dedicated to fund collaborative research projects between scientists from different member states. The US government does not have such a mandate, per se.”

Professor Thill agrees: “The structure of national research funding agencies in the USA is such that there are few funding opportunities for cross-national research.” And, even where opportunities do exist, it can take a long time before research can even begin. Professor Stenberg explains that in his experience, “it took at least two, and usually more, years of planning and negotiating to get funded.”

Internationalism as national policy

Ranking second in our table is Chile. Atilio Bustos González, Director Sistema de Biblioteca from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile, is not at all surprised by Chile’s high ranking: “The research community in Chile is small, with just 2.96 researchers per 1,000 citizens of working age. Therefore, international collaboration is mandatory. We even have a national agency of research and universities, CONICYT, to stimulate international collaboration.”

Part of this high level of international collaboration can be attributed to astrophysics, one of the main areas of output and impact of Chilean research. Bustos González explains: “European South Observatory and Cerro Tololo (USA Observatory) are the main astrophysical installations in the southern hemisphere. American and European researchers work together with Chile on projects financed by these governments. This results in many international publications. The main countries with which Chile collaborates are the USA, Spain, Germany, France, England, Brazil and Argentina.”

Another contributing factor is that many researchers are educated abroad. “For many years, the nation’s strategy for developing researchers has been to stimulate education in developed countries. One consequence of this strategy is that Chilean researchers often publish with their international colleagues,” he adds.

While the nature of contemporary research questions often demands collaboration with researchers across national boundaries, many countries are also forced by geographical limitations or encouraged by national policies to pursue more internationalization than others. The size and resources of a country have a clear effect on the frequency with which local researchers will seek foreign collaborators, but in those regions where government policy restricts or slows the ability of researchers to reach out, even research topics that require international collaboration can be stifled.

Rank
Country
Collaboration % 2007
1
Switzerland
55.9%
2
Chile
53.8%
3
Denmark
51.6%
4
Belgium
51.6%
5
Bulgaria
50.9%
6
Hong Kong
50.7%
7
Austria
50.0%
8
Sweden
48.0%
9
Norway
48.0%
10
Portugal
47.0%
11
Romania
46.7%
12
Slovakia
46.5%
13
New Zealand
46.2%
14
Ireland
45.9%
15
Hungary
45.7%
16
Netherlands
45.5%
17
Thailand
45.3%
18
France
43.8%
19
South Africa
43.6%
20
Finland
43.2%
21
Argentina
42.4%
22
Germany
41.9%
23
Canada
39.8%
24
Mexico
39.5%
25
Ukraine
39.5%
26
Czech Republic
39.3%
27
United Kingdom
39.0%
28
Australia
38.7%
29
Israel
38.4%
30
Singapore
38.4%
31
Slovenia
37.6%
32
Italy
36.4%
33
Malaysia
35.9%
34
Egypt
35.3%
35
Spain
34.9%
36
Greece
33.7%
37
Russian Federation
33.1%
38
Poland
31.3%
39
Pakistan
27.7%
40
Brazil
27.2%
41
Croatia
27.0%
42
USA
26.4%
43
Korea, Republic of
23.8%
44
Japan
21.0%
45
Iran, Islamic Republic of
20.3%
46
India
17.8%
47
Taiwan, Province of China
15.7%
48
Turkey
15.3%
49
China
13.4%

Table 1 – Countries with an output of more than 5,000 articles in 2007 are ranked on their collaboration percentage. This percentage is calculated by counting the number of articles on which authors from more than one country have collaborated, divided by the total number of articles. Source: Scopus

Useful links

In Issue 11, Jamo Saarti at Kuopio University, Finland, also underlined the importance of international collaboration in research, especially with regard to improving institutional rankings.

Reference:

(1) Leydesdorff, L. and Wagner, C.S. (2008) ‘International collaboration in science and the formation of a core group’, Informetrics, 2, pp. 317–325.
(2) Rees, M. (October 30, 2008) ‘International collaboration is part of science’s DNA’, Nature, 456, p. 31.
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