Iran leads the way to revive MENA commitment to knowledge

Iran has been leading the way towards reviving the Middle East’s commitment to knowledge and learning through its accelerated scientific research in various fields, a new study revealed.

According to a latest study titled The Changing Research Landscape of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), Iran has even left Israel and Turkey behind as the largest producer of research papers among 19 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT), with its world share of the Web of Science literature – just 0.2% in 2000 – surging to 2.3% in less than two decades.

The latest ISI view of research in the MENAT, a region spreading from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, is being enhanced by new developments led by the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) and the Islamic World Science Citation Center (ISC) in Iran.

It has noted that the ISC – which aims to provide an evaluation of Iranian scientific journals based on scientometric indicators and principles used in the Web of Science – now covers 1,825 Iranian peer-reviewed journals extending to 3,400 titles with journals published in almost all Muslim nations.

More than one million records, covering more than 40 million references and one million citations, have been indexed in ISC with about 54% being English language journals, 38% Farsi journals and 8% Arabic.

According to the ISI’s latest report, the MENAT research network remains fragmented yet it contains “lighthouses of excellence in a stormy sea”.

The ISI has noted that the global research landscape has changed seismically over the past four decades with emerging competencies with new economic strength in Latin America, unprecedented growth in investment in the Asia-Pacific and a broadening renaissance across the MENAT.

“The countries in this region [MENAT] present a very wide range of capacity in both human and financial resources… Conflict in some of these countries has disrupted all normal university and research activity and their data does not reflect their innate research and innovation potential,” the report states, adding that despite these conflicts, there is a wealth of research activity.

Iran is clearly specialised in physical and technological sciences, said the report.

The findings indicate that the collective regional publication output for MENAT has grown over the past four decades, from 7,665 papers in 1981 to more than 150,000 papers in 2019. It stated that the absolute growth of output (the count of papers) is also driven by international collaboration, which is increasing globally as more countries realise the benefits of sharing the costs of significant scientific and social challenges.

The ISI’s latest study stated that the Iranians increasingly partner with colleagues abroad, despite external sanctions, helping the nation, whose scientific research was once in retreat, become increasingly networked, with a tally of internationally co-authored papers rising through 35%.

“During 2015-2019, Iran cut its share of papers published in low-impact titles by 30% and increased papers in top quartile – typically Anglophone – journals by the same. This is a considerable achievement for Iranian researchers who are non-native English writers,” the study said.

This is despite the economic sanctions that mean shortages of supplies and curbs on travel to international conferences. The country’s scientists have also been credited with urgent calls to address academic misconducts such as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism through better education and institutional policies.

Israel leads per capita output

On a per capita basis, Iran still has a long way to go to match Israel’s achievements. Research output, in terms of journal articles and reviews indexed in the Web of Science (2015-19), varies per capita from 0.05 for Yemen to 8.24 for Israel.

But Israel is approaching double the output per capita of next best Qatar (4.41), and even further ahead of third-placed Saudi Arabia (2.35), with Iran fourth (2.27). Among African countries, the best placed is Tunisia (1.97), way ahead of Egypt (0.66) and Algeria (0.42).

However, national growth figures show that six countries dominate the overall output, with Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia accounting for more than 80% of total regional production.

Growth for research economies that were well established before 2000 has been more modest but in other countries it has been significant.

Israel doubled its output over the period since 2000, whereas Iran has seen an outstanding more than 30-fold growth. Tunisia (now almost 10 times its 2000 volume), Turkey and Egypt (both seven times their 2000 volume) have also seen substantial growth and there is similar expansion among the smaller countries.

Saudi Arabia’s numbers grew more rapidly but some experts say that some of that expansion is attributable to non-Saudi researchers who are attached to Saudi institutions and list them as affiliations. Another stand-out growth profile is that of Iraq, “where publication output remains small but has increased more than 50-fold under the most challenging circumstances”, the report says.

The most common target and source region for MENAT research mobility was Europe, with North America as the second and Asia well behind.

Five large research economies have been identified as particularly prominent in collaboration, namely the United States, which has been a co-author country on about 8%-10% of regional papers throughout the period, the United Kingdom that has increased its collaboration from around 3% to 5.2% of regional papers, and Germany, which is also seen as a frequent partner across many countries.

France was a frequent collaborator, appearing as a co-author country on 7% or more of regional papers before 2000, but is now co-authoring less than 5%.

Although international collaboration is generally lower in MENAT (45%) than in Western Europe (65%), it varies a great deal. Iran and Turkey both publish many papers but only 25% have international co-authors.

The study has concluded that if MENAT is to achieve similar growth, then it too will need a new level of research organisation and collaboration.

“This would do much to advance the region, power up its unquestionable talent and capacity and visibly rebuild the international reputation of Islamic, Arab, Persian and Turkish learning and scholarship that sustained the Western world for centuries,” it said.