International collaboration in African research – Who wins?

Africa’s heavy dependency on international scientific collaboration may be stifling research individualism and affecting the continent’s research evolution and priorities, according to recent research.

A scientometric analysis co-authored by University of Pretoria academic Professor Anastassios Pouris and Professor Yuh-Shan Ho of Asia University shows that scientific papers produced by African academics in collaboration with international partners grew dramatically – by 66% – over a recent five-year period.

Single author articles, by contrast, appear to be “on the verge of extinction” on the continent.

In their paper “Research emphasis and collaboration in Africa”, analysing co-authorship patterns in Africa and published online by Scientometrics (DOI 10.1007/s11192-013-1156-8), the researchers show how African research areas are dominated by medical and natural resources fields.

Instead of collaborative research driven by foreign funding sources, Pouris and Ho suggest that Africa’s science and development might be better served by the creation of regional research and innovation systems.

The study analysed a total of 111,877 articles published by authors in African countries in journals indexed by the Thomson Reuters Web of Science between 2007 and 2011.

The researchers found that African countries generally exhibit substantially higher collaboration patterns than other countries in the world, with 29 countries publishing more than 90% of their articles in collaboration with others.

Research skewed by field

Most of the collaboration, according to the study, is with the United States, France and the United Kingdom – three countries that are also the largest funders of research in biosciences, with emphasis on medicine and agricultural sciences, in Africa.

Thus another anomaly highlighted by the study is the “over emphasis” in Africa on research in the medical and natural resources fields including biodiversity, water resources, entomology and mining.

In relation to the scientific ‘size’ or capacity of the continent, Pouris and Ho argue that these disciplines are over-emphasised and significantly exceed world averages for research in these areas.

For example, the most emphasised research fields in Africa are those of tropical medicine (12.5 times larger than expected from the scientific size of Africa), parasitology (6.5 times larger) and infectious diseases (4.6 times larger).

Pouris and Ho ask whether such an emphasis best serves Africa’s needs, particularly in light of Africa’s under-emphasis on disciplines such as engineering, physics, chemistry, materials science and instrumentation – all of which underpin modern technologies and economies and, unlike in Africa, have been prioritised by newly industrialised nations such as China.

Ignoring international examples

“The obvious question is why Africa does not follow international examples?” write Pouris and Ho, who suggest that without the benefit of regional capacity, overemphasis on a particular discipline is unlikely to move research beyond subcritical levels.

“The argument is that the small research community and activity on the continent will not be able to resolve current scientific challenges, such as the HIV-Aids pandemic. If the regional capacity is not able to provide a scientific or technological solution to a challenge, overemphasis on particular disciplines will not be fruitful,” they argue.

“Similarly, while internationally the effort is to develop high technology industries based on brain power, African countries ignore these trends.

“Hence, the argument can be developed that it may be preferable to move away from expensive fields like medicine and focus on wealth-creating disciplines that may require less investment and may be easier to be diffused in the economy and society.”

Thus, Pouris and Ho conclude that Africa suffers from “subcritical research systems and collaboration dominance”.

Too much collaboration?

Although growth in collaborative research publications is a global phenomenon – rising in the rest of the world from 10% to 25% during the period 1990 to 2010 – the levels of collaboration remain far lower than in Africa where the share of co-authored articles increased from 52% to 58% over the shorter period of 2007 to 2011.

For example South Africa, the highest producer of publications in Africa, had an international collaboration rate of 53%. By comparison, fellow BRICS countries generally reflected much lower rates of collaboration: 25% for Brazil, 20% for India and 23% for China.

The United States – the top international producer of publications – had a collaboration rate of 33%. Although higher collaboration rates were found in countries such as Germany (51%), Switzerland (67%) and Sweden (59%), individual African countries exhibit substantially higher collaboration patterns.

Little regional collaboration

While collaboration rates with the international academic community are high among African countries, between African countries it is dismally low.

South Africa, for instance, undertook regional collaboration in respect of only 1,145 or 3.9% of its total five-year publication output. The percentage rises to 29% in the case of Mauritania and 37% in the case of the Lesotho, but a clear majority of African countries reflect levels below 10%.

The study also found that the most prolific institutions on the African continent – nine in Egypt and seven in South Africa – all have higher numbers of inter-institutional collaborative articles than single institution articles.

South Africa’s high international collaboration rate persists in spite of the fact that the national university funding system acts as a disincentive to inter-institutional collaboration in the sense that collaborating institutions are required to share the government subsidy that rewards staff members who publish.

“The high share of inter-institutional collaborative articles from South African universities indicate that the forces promoting inter-institutional collaboration are stronger than the adverse impact of the funding mode,” conclude Pouris and Ho.

Changing priorities

They suggest that African collaboration is not driven by local researchers searching for collaborators beyond a relatively small national or regional pool, but by the availability of resources and interests outside the continent – in other words, by international imperatives and often these favour group rather than individual research.

“What drives researchers, say in Botswana and Zimbabwe, to produce more than 74% of their collaborative publications outside Africa? South African universities are a few hours away by car. Europe and the US are a number of hours away by plane?” they ask.

For Pouris and Ho, the “revealed structure” of co-authorship patterns raises a number of policy concerns.

The fact that international co-authorship is higher for scientifically small countries has already been established by earlier studies, but Pouris and Ho suggest that it is precisely because of these scientific limitations that African countries need to be particularly attentive to research priorities in order to optimise developmental goals.