Non-African partners influence research agenda – Study

A scientometric study to be published in a forthcoming edition of the South African Journal of Science indicates that non-African research collaborators have a high impact not only on the quantity of co-authored publications, but also the research disciplines in which co-authored research is undertaken.

According to the study’s author, Anastasious Pouris of the Institute of Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, the study highlights a number of policy implications for African countries, including the effects of collaboration on the priorities and direction of the national innovation system.

“The aim was to create awareness of the influence of non-African collaborators in SADC’s [the Southern African Development Community's] research priorities. The choice of the groups has been made so that scientifically big countries (non-African countries) collaborate with a relatively small scientific community,” Pouris writes.

The study, funded wholly by the National Research Foundation, shows that the research areas in which South Africa and other Southern African countries collaborate with all (non-African) collaborators is dominated by medical and health issues.

“When there is no non-African influence, the co-authorship priorities appear to change. Infectious diseases and immunology therefore appear to be led by foreign researchers. It is emphasised that even though these figures are relatively small, they are the total populations of articles with the particular characteristics,” he writes.


In the latest study, co-authorship patterns were investigated among South African authors publishing with authors from other countries in the region, with and without other non-African co-authors over the period 2012-2014. This three-year period was chosen as it coincided with the completion of the Seventh Framework Programme or FP7, a powerful European instrument which promoted collaborative research and development (among others activities).

The scientometric analysis was facilitated by Clarivate Analytics’ (formerly Thomson Reuters) Web of Science databases which cover the most important journals in the world.

During the period of the study, the analysis found that South African researchers produced 45,343 publications, the majority of which (85.7%) were articles. Of the research articles, 23,581 or 52% were co-authored with at least one author from another country. Among the co-authored publications 1,505 or 6.4% had at least one co-author from the SADC region. The main collaborating countries were Zimbabwe (406 articles), Malawi (237 articles) and Namibia (221).

In order to identify the influence of non-African countries in the regional co-authorship effort, the articles that had non-African co-authors were excluded. Hence, only 563 publications were identified to be co-authored between South African and SADC contributors, which amounted to only 2.4% of the South African co-authored publications.

The study shows that where there was collaboration between South African authors with no non-African co-authors from 2012–2014 (out of 563 papers), agriculture (9.9%) featured as the most popular research topic, followed by environmental sciences ecology (7.8%), public environmental occupational health (5.5%) and plant sciences (5.3%).

However, where there was collaboration between South African authors with SADC and other co-authors, the highest number of research papers (out of 1505) were produced in the following areas: infectious diseases (14.2%), immunology (10.6%), public environmental occupational health (8.7%) and environmental sciences ecology (8.6%).

According to Pouris, the findings suggest that the majority (almost two thirds) of South African-SADC collaboration includes non-African participants.

Divergence of disciplines

“While it is difficult to surmise what would have happened if non-African collaborators were not available, it may be argued that these collaborations were initiated by the non-African participants. What is probably more important is the fact that the collaborations with no non-Africans occurred in disciplines different from those in which non-Africans participated. This finding confirms the assertion of other researchers that most African science collaboration flows through international gates,” he states.

The latest study builds on earlier research which has shown that co-authored research among researchers from Sub-Saharan African countries is minimal. Furthermore, previous research by Pouris and Professor Yuh-Shan Ho of Asia University have revealed that the dominant research areas in African countries – medical research and natural resource fields – are to a large extent determined by the interests of the scientifically stronger non-African partner.

Research published in 2010 by Pouris found that all 15 SADC countries appeared to have the same focus in their research priorities and underemphasise disciplines such as engineering, materials science and molecular biology. In that paper, he expressed concern that research structures were inadequate to assist in reaching the objectives developed in SADC’s Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan.

Based on past research, Pouris argues that while the majority of the African-related investigations have been focused on the effects of collaborations on impact, as manifested in citations, and the meagre size of inter-African collaboration, a critical issue in terms of policy is the possible effects of collaboration on the priorities and direction of the innovation system.

In this latest paper, he continues this line of argument: “A number of policy relevant questions can be raised. Are the collaborative disciplines also induced by the non-African participants? If so, are they in the interest of the local regional system of innovation? What would happen if the non-African participants lose interest in the region? How can local collaboration be improved?"

He said further research, including surveys and comparisons in other regions in the world, may confirm the validity of the argument that scientifically big countries have the power to dictate priorities in small regions.