Research publication subjects favour Soviet tradition

The disciplinary structure of various nations’ publication output has long attracted attention of scholars and policy analysts alike. It is commonly understood that this structure is influenced by culture, geography and the political regime of a given country, but several studies show that, for leading countries, this structure is often similar.

Those countries that are catching up, that is, that are quickly increasing their publication output, are very likely to shift their disciplinary structure to this dynamic international standard. The most notable exception is Russia.

According to the 2012 article “A Comparison of Disciplinary Structure in Science between the G7 and the BRIC Countries by Bibliometric Methods” published in Scientometrics, Russia was the only BRIC country – Brazil, Russia, India, China – that made virtually no change to its disciplinary structure in the Web of Science in 1991-2009, while the others have galloped towards the G7 average.

We looked at disciplinary shifts for a broad range of ex-COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) countries using the wide-coverage Scopus database to find out if this is still the case for Russia. We also examined whether its former allies show similarly conservative trends.


Soviet academia was vastly different from its Western counterpart in many aspects, one of them being its combination of academic disciplines. Although the USSR pursued research in virtually all branches of science and humanities, some were greatly prioritised over others. To put it simply, strategic weapons and strategic defence were paramount.

I Tamm, L Landau, S Kapitsa, N Semenov, I Frank, V Ginzburg – nearly all the Soviet Nobel prize winners in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM – were working on nuclear weapons at some point in their careers.

A Prokhorov and N Basov, who shared this prize for their pioneering research on lasers with CH Townes, led two competing large-scale projects on laser missile defence. E Slavsky, a long-time head of the Soviet nuclear R&D and industry, is believed to have said that his institutes employed more members of the USSR Academy of Sciences than 100 institutes of the Academy itself.

Soviet leaders understood well that bombs, planes and rockets were impossible without broad-spectrum basic research in physics, chemistry, earth and planetary science and mathematics.

By contrast, biology and biomedicine were not nearly as significant and suffered from the consequences of sweeping repressions against geneticists during Stalin’s reign. It’s important to note that it was possible to publish basic research in Western journals in all STEM subjects but with certain restrictions.

Social sciences and humanities were special in a different way. They were afflicted by ideological bias as the Soviet government forced Marxism-Leninism on teaching and methodology. This led to censorship and dismissal of theories that were alternative to mainstream views.

Those who were reluctant to deal with Marxist clichés could easily switch to studying all things obscure, like Hittite language, which were deemed harmless by the party, but the scope of Soviet social sciences and humanities output available to international scholars was very limited.

Other academic systems in the Eastern Bloc wound up very similar to the Russian model, despite their natural and cultural differences. For the most part they were copying the Soviet Academy of Sciences with its broad-spectrum approach and a huge network of research institutes.

The focus on megascience and nuclear physics was, however, much less prominent. Nowadays the remnants of Soviet academies still dominate research landscapes of many ex-USSR countries, while the rest have actively pursued a more European Union-oriented approach and significantly changed their disciplinary balance.

Larger COMECON countries in Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, etc) were long-established parts of the European research community prior to World War II and by the end of the Cold War era combined Soviet and European features. After the collapse of communist regimes, virtually all of them rushed into EU grant programmes, which quickly shifted their focus.

Natural sciences

Despite the fact that the data we have studied is not sufficiently accurate for pre-1996 and includes only a small share of non-English periodicals from Russia and other ex-COMECON states, we found the main distinctive feature of Soviet academia, that is, heavy investment in natural sciences (mainly physics), to be still common for all countries with an average of 68% of all publications being in that area.

Former Soviet republics had the highest number of publications in natural sciences (80% to 96% in 1996), but this has been declining everywhere except Belarus (83% to 88%) and Turkmenistan (80% to 95%). EU member states have much lower numbers in natural sciences. Their publication rate has declined in the past decade as Eastern European countries were trying to blend into the EU academic system.

The agricultural sciences accounted for just 1% to 3% of articles and reviews of ex-USSR scholars, and their growth in 1996-2014 was barely noticeable, except in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Other new EU members demonstrated a similarly pronounced increase in agricultural research.

By contrast, Cuba and Vietnam for some reason have lost momentum slightly in this area. Cuba stands apart from all other post-communist countries as medical sciences have always been the top priority there. More than half of all Cuban research output is, according to Scopus, devoted to the medical sciences. In the past few years this indicator has remained stable at circa 60%.

All the other ex-COMECON countries, however, still lag behind the USA in medical sciences. Nevertheless, post-Soviet medical sciences in EU-oriented states have experienced an internationalisation surge with the number of publications in Scopus-indexed journals rising across the board (with the only two exceptions being Montenegro and Slovakia). The share of medical publications was higher in EU member states and rose on average from 25% in 1996 to 31% in 2014, with the leaders being Croatia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (all at over 35% in 2014).

Former Soviet republics have also shown a noticeable increase, but their results remain drastically low compared to Germany or the USA. Such a modest share of medical research output in Scopus for Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan is partly compensated for by a vast Russian-language medical journal network. Sadly, these journals – more than 500 in Russia alone – remain unknown in the English-dominated global research community.

Local vs global research

This brings us to the problem of local vs global academic communities, which is crucial for modern ex-Soviet states. According to the Russian Science Citation Database, or RSCD, which covers virtually all Russian scientific journals, medicine was the second most popular subject after economics in terms of Russian-language publication counts in 2014.

Each of these two subject groups accounts for more than 50,000 RSCD articles per year, while Russia’s total output in Scopus is less than 40,000 articles per year. The current RSCD disciplinary ranking is a reversed version of Scopus ranking for Russia – with economics, medicine, law, agriculture and educational research occupying the top levels.

These are exactly the areas of lowest output for Russia, according to Scopus. In-depth analysis of such a profound contradiction is beyond the scope of this article. We just have to mention that, while nationally oriented academic communities in the arts and humanities are typical for most non-English-speaking countries, the notion of ‘national’ medical research is clearly something worrying.

Social sciences in the former USSR republics, almost non-existent in Scopus in the 1990s (possibly due to a low number of indexed journals and English language bias), have experienced a moderate rise from an average of 0.6% in 1996 to 7.8% in 2014, but this number is still lower than in the majority of Eastern European EU member states. Social sciences output in those countries has also risen from an average of 3.6% to 11.6% in 2014. Baltic countries are clearly the leaders here: Lithuania (up from 2.9% to 21.5%), Estonia (up from 2.2% to 17.2%) and Latvia (up from 1.5% to 10.4%).

On the whole, our data is consistent with earlier studies. Russia, despite its recent reforms and a major move towards developing world-class universities, has exhibited only a modest shift towards a typical US/EU17 research landscape, which is increasingly dominated by life sciences and medicine. The same applies to Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Poland, the Czech Republic and other ex-COMECON European Union members, on the other hand, had already become closer to EU17 by 1996, and later succeeded in pursuing this integration route.

Ivan Sterligov is head of the Analysis Unit, Office of Research Evaluation, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation. Email: Alfiya Enikeeva and Victor Trofimov are analysts at the Office of Research Evaluation. This is an edited version of an article published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, or HERB.