Insights into international research collaboration

Taking research projects beyond borders makes them more successful on average, our numbers reveal.

Science is a truly international affair: 43 percent of all papers published in the past five years were written by international research teams. We wanted to see if and how working together across borders influences researchers’ work. That’s why we went through publications on ResearchGate to see who has collaborated with whom, and with what outcome, today and 25 years ago. We defined an "international collaboration" as a publication with at least two authors from different countries. We also looked at how many citations publications with international authors got in comparison with national teams.

See what we found in these graphs.

First, we looked at who is working with whom. Here’s which countries appear together most often when authors work together internationally. Click here to enlarge.

Who collaborates with whom

Second, we looked at international collaboration as a percentage of a country's total publication output. This shows us what percentage of papers from each country has at least one international co-author.

The following graph shows each country's total publication output as a percentage of the world's publications and helps puts the rates of international collaboration from the previous graph into perspective. Note: most publications on ResearchGate are in English.

"We can enrich and advance our knowledge by sharing ideas, resources and tools. An international collaboration brings together the best of the minds across the world and together we develop something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Identifying gravitational waves in detector data requires the knowledge of how the instrument works, the signature of gravitational wave sources and their mathematical description, character of the noise background, statistical description of the data, and the like. Expertise in these diverse areas resides not in a single institution or a country but is dispersed around the world. LIGO Scientific Collaboration created an arena in which we could all work together and made the impossible possible: discovery of minute ripples in the geometry of spacetime and tell-tale signature of merging binary black holes."

sathyaBangalore Sathyaprakash is a researcher and professor at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy. He is a member of the LIGO Governing Council. Read our interview with him here.

Third, we took a look at international collaborations as a percentage of a country's total publication output over the past 25 years. Here you see which countries have increased or decreased their rate of international collaboration since 1991. This graph is interactive, you can click on the legend to remove and add information.

We searched for background information by experts who have studied international research collaboration. The information we share is not meant to infer causation, but offer insight into the graph above. Want to provide your own analysis or suggestions? Tweet your ideas @ResearchGate.

Why has the amount of international collaborations increased for most countries in the past quarter century?

Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, University of Oxford, argues in his research that the increased international collaboration was enabled by improved communications, including internet based communication and cheaper travel, and driven by three factors. First, the search for quality. Researchers will seek out the best collaborators regardless of location. Second, increased efficiency. For projects that require large facilities (Large Hadron Collider) it makes sense to work together. Finally, data needs to be combined from different regions when studying global problems like climate change and pandemics.

Why do smaller countries and countries in the EU have high rates of international collaboration?

Jean-Claude Thill in Research Trends reported an inverse relationship between the degree of internationalization and the size of the country. This relationship was attributed to fewer collaboration opportunities within smaller countries which forced them to look abroad. The same report points to the high rates of international collaboration for EU member states as a result of EU research funding that promotes collaboration.

What’s the deal with China, Turkey and Iran?

For countries where scientific growth is the fastest such as China, Turkey and Iran, the Royal Society’s report “Knowledge, networks and nations” suggests that international collaboration, in relative terms, becomes less important. It takes time for researchers to become established before they are in a position to seek out – or be sought out as – collaborators. China is currently second to the US in R&D spending according to a NSF report with expenditures of $336.5 billion (20% global share) and has become the world’s third-largest producer of research articles. Russia, India, and Brazil (its research output had doubled in 10 years leading up to 2009) are also feature in the top 15 for R&D spending.

What’s happening in the US, Japan and other big established research countries?

Researchers in countries where high amounts of money flow into R&D and many people work in the field, Jean-Claude Thill points out, also have many opportunities to collaborate nationally. This is the case in Japan and the US, for instance. The countries rank first and third in R&D spending with $160.2 billion (10 percent global share) and $456.1 billion (27 percent global share) respectively. They are also both in the top 15 countries for R&D researchers per million people with 5,201 and 3,867.

"International research collaborations are integral to virtually all the research I am involved with. I am fortunate enough to work with various world leaders in multiple fields around the world. These collaborations have lead to interesting projects and and wonderful, lifelong friendships."

Isaac-Bogoch-Photo-214pIsaac I Bogoch is clinical researcher at the Toronto General Research Institute. He works with an international and interdisciplinary team on neglected tropical diseases in resource-constrained settings. Read our interview with him here.

Finally, this graph shows the median number of citations for all publications* with and without international collaboration. As a reference for you, we found publications written by an international team had a median of five authors and publications written by researchers from the same country had four authors.

This graph is also interactive. Click on its legend to remove and add information.

*For a paper to be included in this graph it must have a minimum of at least two authors.

"I have found that working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds often brings new and innovative perspectives to the table, which helps us think out of the box."

AlexisAlexis Rodriguez is a senior researcher at the Planetary Science Institute, USA. Read more about his team finding evidence of two mega-tsunamis on Mars here.


Featured image courtesy of Flickr.