International science collaboration growing at astonishing rate

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Even those who follow science may be surprised by how quickly international collaboration in scientific studies is growing, according to new research.

The number of multiple-author scientific papers with collaborators from more than one country more than doubled from 1990 to 2015, from 10 to 25 percent, one study found. And 58 more participated in international research in 2015 than did so in 1990.

"Those are astonishing numbers," said Caroline Wagner, associate professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, who helped conduct these studies.

"In the 20th century, we had national systems for conducting research. In this century, we increasingly have a global system."

Wagner presented her research Feb. 17 in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Even though Wagner has studied in for years, the way it has grown so quickly and widely has surprised even her.

One unexpected finding was that international collaboration has grown in all fields she has studied. One would expect more cooperation in fields like physics, where expensive equipment (think supercolliders) encourages support from many countries. But in mathematics?

"You would think that researchers in math wouldn't have a need to collaborate internationally - but I found they do work together, and at an increasing rate," Wagner said.

"The methods of doing research don't determine patterns of collaboration. No matter how scientists do their work, they are collaborating more across borders."

In a study published online last month in the journal Scientometrics, Wagner and two co-authors (who are both from The Netherlands) examined the growth in international collaboration in six fields: astrophysics, mathematical logic, polymer science, seismology, and virology.

Their findings showed that all six specialties added between 18 and 60 new nations to the list of collaborating partners between 1990 and 2013. In two of those fields, the number of participating nations doubled or more.

The researchers expected astrophysics would grow the most in collaboration, given the need to use expensive equipment. But it was soil science that grew the most, with a 550 percent increase in the links between research groups in different countries in that time period.

"We certainly didn't expect to see soil science have the fastest growth," she said.

"But we saw strong increases in all areas. It appears that all the fields of science that we studied are converging toward similar levels of international activity."

The study found that virology had the highest rate of collaboration, with the most countries involved. "They aren't working together because they need to share expensive equipment. They're collaborating because issues like HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika are all international problems and they need to share information across borders to make progress."

Wagner has started a new line of research that attempts to determine how much nations benefit from their scientific work with other countries. For this work, she is looking at all the scientific articles that a nation's scientists published with international collaborators in 2013. She is looking at each article's "impact factor" - a score that measures how much other scientists mentioned that study in their own work.

"How much recognition a study gets from other scientists is a way to measure its importance," Wagner said.

She compared each nation's combined impact factor for its international collaborations to how much money the same country spent on scientific research. This is a way to determine how much benefit in terms of impact each nation gets for the money it spends.

The United States has the highest overall spending and shows proportional returns. However, smaller, scientifically advanced nations are far outperforming the United States in the relationship between spending and impact. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland outperform other countries in high-quality science compared to their investment. China is significantly underperforming its investment.

Wagner said this isn't the only way to measure how a country is benefiting from international science collaboration. But it can be one way to determine how efficiently a country is using its science dollars.

In any case, Wagner said her findings show that international science collaboration is becoming the way gets done in nearly all scientific fields.

"Science is a global enterprise now," Wagner said.

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Feb 18, 2017
I think this in large parts due to increased mobility of researchers. It has become not uncommon to spend part of one's early research career in another country. Also it has become easier (cheaper) to just go and visit a conference, and the number of conferences has increased. This makes for extremely valuable meeting places that can spark off collaborations.
Face-time is incredibly valuable for this. This is someting that doesn't occur as much if there's only an exchange of interests through the virtual. (Of course the widespread use of email since the 1990's has helped a ton.)

As for international collaborations in general: I found that people from different cultures have different mindsets - which leads to slightly different ways of attacking problems. This leads to weird synergies (hate that word, but here it actually fits) as one can compensate for another's weak spot.

Feb 18, 2017
Also, adding to Antialias view, out interconnectedness via internat makes all the difference as well. Prior, people may have been able to connect by phone, but it is much harder to describe a mathematical relationship verbally than to be able to have it written out in notation and allow someone to see it, as we easily can today. It makes a huge difference also with the Many Viewpoint idea, where people will attack the same problem different ways; we get to combine these ways, and it is coming out with cmpletely new types of thinking.

Feb 19, 2017
Testing terafield force Tetz 17.54

Feb 19, 2017
Add to this, the interdisciplinary nature of many of these international collaborations and we have a recipe for -
some way cool new understandings!

Feb 20, 2017
I wish some of these collaborators would show some interest in my subject and its recently shared new information in "Consequential Macroeconomics--Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works" --write to me for a copy and learn how the effects of any a policy decision can be simulated. write to me at for an e-copy

Feb 20, 2017
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Feb 20, 2017
When we can have videocollaboration, that helps too.

But to the point of the article, *this* is why scientific exchange must be free for all. It's the ultimate justification for it. The world is a larger pool to draw expertise from than any country can be.

As a counterexample, look at China's underperformance. Anyone care to bet on whether that's because of their authoritarian government discouraging such collaborations? Tsk, tsk, ya gets what ya pays for. It would be interesting to compare performance with the degree of authoritarianism of the government. Maybe some sociologists could get together internationally and check it out. ;)

Feb 20, 2017
And here's a political comment on it: the current increasingly right-wing conservative authoritarian temper of Western democracies is sure to have an impact on how well this works. I'll be interested to see if anyone takes that on as a research project.

Make Amurca stupid again!


Feb 20, 2017
And here's a political comment on it: the current increasingly right-wing conservative authoritarian temper of Western democracies is sure to have an impact on how well this works. I'll be interested to see if anyone takes that on as a research project.

Make Amurca stupid again!


And ya can't do that by being stupid -

PS - DS, They're not as afraid of being stupid as they are of not having control...
(which is - kinda stupid...)

Feb 21, 2017
That's even worse, the stupids in control. Never works out well. One word: Iraq.

Thing is, there's more stupids. And propaganda works on them. Say, hasn't that happened a bunch in ancient history? You know, like in Greece and Rome and like that? And recent history too, like Napoleon and Hitler? I mean, just sayin'.

Feb 21, 2017
Dont know if my papers have been noticed


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