Restrictions on collaboration are ‘hindering’ international research

Japan lags behind the United States and the United Kingdom in international research and is being held back by a system that restricts international collaboration and focuses on supporting research for the domestic market, experts said at a recent seminar in Tokyo.

Citing extensive data, Dr Jonathan Adams, a leading British expert, said that papers produced collaboratively across countries achieve higher citation rates and impact on a global scale, evidence that international research is the way to go.

“The leading edge of research is the collaborative network. With citations of co-authored papers growing annually compared to domestic papers, the impact of international research is obvious,” he said.

For example, in his paper titled Fourth Age of Research, Adams says there is a 50% increase in citations of papers with authors from more than one country. The development has led to an increase in international collaboration in higher education.

In the United States 33% of papers produced are co-authored compared to almost zero in 1981. The UK also reported impressive growth – 52% of its papers had international authors in 2012, a landmark rise compared to 15% in 1981.

The impact has been recorded in citations – for both the US and the UK papers involving collaboration achieved more than 20% more citations than papers not involving collaboration in 2011.

In comparison, 25% of the almost 775,000 papers published by Japan between 2004 and 2013 were internationally authored. Collaboration was mostly with co-authors in the United States and focused on cutting-edge scientific and medical research. Japanese researchers have joined international experts in collaborative research in fields such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

Experts pointed out the fact that three-quarters of the papers produced by Japan were by domestic authors, a figure that remains static, unlike in other countries, which could be a limiting factor for Japanese universities’ international performance.

Chie Sato, a Japanese expert on innovation education, said Japan has a strong accumulation of knowledge and technology in industry and universities. This is a base from which to produce cutting edge research, she said.

“Elite Japanese researchers have long been involved in international collaboration and are doing very well. The reason why Japan is dogged by a low profile on international research is based on numerous factors,” she said.

National weaknesses include a lack of matching guidance for middle-academia seeking foreign authors and finances for universities.

Indeed, Japan’s Ministry of Education has intensified its current programmes, such as the Super Global Universities, to boost international research.

A deep-rooted challenge is the fact that the current system has supported Japanese universities to stay focused on research produced for the domestic market. This restricts international networking and keeps English language publications, which command an international audience, on the periphery.

Sato said the push for collaboration with foreign authors is a positive step to foster Japanese research in the international arena.

Adams – a chief scientist at Digital Science, a Macmillan Group company, and a science policy adviser to the United Kingdom government – was the keynote speaker at the seminar organised in December by the British Council in Tokyo under the slogan, “Are international collaborations effective in improving research strength?”

Among Asian countries, Singapore led the way – more than 75% of research is based on international collaboration. While South Korea, China and India are producing high output mostly in home-grown research, the data also indicates an increase of around 20% in internationally authored documents over the past decade.

China, for example, now produces 200,000 papers, of which 50,000 are the result of international collaboration.

Experts at the seminar stressed the benefits of international collaboration to drive research aimed at solving global problems across disciplines such as climate change or food security.

“Only by taking a global trans-disciplinary approach can highly complex research questions be addressed,” Adams said.