About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 22, 2010

Spending and Publishing

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Posted by Derek

Since we were talking about worldwide scientific productivity here the other day, this article in The Economist is timely. They're talking about the share of worldwide R&D (and papers published) by country, and pointing out that the longtime order seems to be changing.

For sheer scientific publications,that order is, of course, the US and Western Europe, followed distantly by everyone else. I've reproduced two graphs from the article, atrocious color schemes and all, and you can see how large the gap has been in the published-paper count.. But there are several interesting features. Note how back in the early 1980s, Russia and Japan were quite similar, but the old Soviet Union (and its successor Russian state) was on the decline even then. Meanwhile, China has come up from nowhere to overtake even Japan. India, South Korea, and Brazil are down in the single digits.
But that brings up some other questions. Take a look at the second graph, on R&D spending as a % of GDP. (This is over a shorter time scale than the paper graph, so adjust your perspective accordingly). Note that Japan has been leading the way here, with South Korea catching up. Neither of them (especially South Korea) publish as much, though, as you'd think, given this investment - is the rest of it going into patents? Or staying inside the labs? Looked at another way, though, the EU is publishing even more than you'd think, given their R&D spending.
You'll see that China is coming up in the spending world, although they're not rising as steeply as South Korea (no one is). India's pretty flat, though, and are being outspent, on this basis, by Brazil. (I hope I'm reading the various shades of aquamarine, teal, and blue-green correctly - you know, the Economist used to be good at presenting information graphically, but whoever let this one through should be whacked on the head).

Neither of these measures is an end in itself. I'd say that robust R&D spending is necessary (but not sufficient) for a country to produce good results. And there are probably a lot of different ways to count things as R&D or not, which we aren't seeing here. As for publications, they're an even rougher measure, since different countries have different cultures (and incentives) for this sort of thing. (Don't forget language barriers, either). And as everyone knows, there are papers and there are papers. Long lists of junk that no one ever reads would be one way to inflate things, but to what good?

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. alig on November 22, 2010 12:36 PM writes...

The second gragh is percent GDP spent on R&D. So even if China holds steady their R&D spending percentage, because their GDP is growing at more than 10 percent a year, their total R&D spending is growing at a rapid rate. To make any meaningful comparison to the first graph, you would want the total amount spent on R&D by each country, not the percentage of their GDP. If Somolia spent 100% of their GDP on R&D, you still wouldn't expect them to publish more papers than the U.S. because they would still not be spending nearly as much total on R&D.

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2. Anonymous on November 22, 2010 2:08 PM writes...

Is China the pale blueish-gray line, or the grayish-pale blue line? Some editor needs to be fired over those plots.

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3. mad on November 22, 2010 2:15 PM writes...

@alig exactly

@Derek I think you need some time off

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4. tedthechemist on November 22, 2010 2:18 PM writes...

Regarding China -there are a lot of good Chinese scientists -but unfortunately the rapid rate of rise in publications form China is boosted by poor quality papers, incorrect papers and fraud. A lot of the patents are also junk - reading some of the biotech stuff is actually very amusing!

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5. reader on November 22, 2010 2:31 PM writes...

Why you did not point out the the US number of scientific papers is declining (based on the first graph, from 40s in the eighties to less than 30 in 2009). What would be the cause for such decline and is going to continue?

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6. anchor on November 22, 2010 2:37 PM writes...

Derek: Are you planning to take any break from your current busy schedule, for the thanksgiving? Knowing your good culinary skills, I say go slice some turkey or bake some pie (pumpkin or pecan). Have fun and happy thanksgiving to all!

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7. Petros on November 22, 2010 3:16 PM writes...

Saw a slide today at the RSC Anglo Chinese Med Chem Symposium showing that China is already the second leading source of chemistry papers and is expected to overhaul the US within 2 years!

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8. reader on November 22, 2010 3:51 PM writes...

It looks like steady and slow decline that will eventually shrink the gap.

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9. starless on November 22, 2010 4:05 PM writes...

Maybe this is not very adequate for this particular post, but there's a pseudoscientific article from famous Russian pseudoscientist Garyaev (there are many variants of the family name transliteration): The journal is peer-reviewed and indexed by Pubmed. The last paragraph is probably most funny.

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10. Brooks Moses on November 22, 2010 4:09 PM writes...

reader @5: Note that that decline is a percentage of the total papers, and that all of the lines in the graph must add up to 100%. From that graph there's no way to tell if the actual number of papers from the U.S. is declining or increasing -- but I would guess that what's happing is that it's holding reasonably steady while the Chinese output is growing quickly.

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11. pkunkel on November 22, 2010 5:44 PM writes...

It's really hard for me to take these plots very seriously without some control for paper quality. It renders any conclusions they make moot.

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12. pkunkel on November 22, 2010 5:46 PM writes...

...which of course they state in the article. Really need to finish reading those articles before I comment.

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13. InfMP on November 22, 2010 11:40 PM writes...

Man. Stupid blue.

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14. Tyrosine on November 23, 2010 12:10 AM writes...

UUggghh. This is terrible data analysis. Looking at the time course of GERD is informative insofar as it tells you what importance each country puts on R&D, but as already noted that doesn't take into account the vastly differing GDPs involved. It also overlooks the relative type of R&D -- Japan has long been a big spender on development rather than primary research, and as such has a much higher patent rate than other countries.

The publications as a % world share graph is also pretty useless to analyse productivity or ability. What would be more interesting is the time course of the number of publications per capita (or, better, per scientist), as one measure of productivity. I suspect China's publication growth rate might be at least in part due merely to the relative population/scientist growth, but it would be nice to know.

Another useful analysis would be the number of publications normalised for expenditure on R&D (GERD), as a measure of efficiency. It may well turn out that high expenditure on R&D doesn't translate into science output and publications... but there's no way to tell from the way that data is presented.

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15. First Aid Kits on November 23, 2010 2:42 AM writes...

It is looking like a good analyzing.The second graph is percent GDP spent on R&D. So even if China holds steady their R&D spending percentage, because their GDP is growing at more than 10 percent a year, their total R&D spending is growing at a rapid rate.

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16. Chris D on November 23, 2010 5:55 AM writes...

Derek: You forgot to mention paper quality, an odd omission given how much you've been writing this year about ubiquitous fraud and plagiarism in...China.

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17. bad wolf on November 23, 2010 7:59 AM writes...

Chris D--you forgot to read the last paragraph, an odd omission, since it covers that topic and makes us wonder if you read anything... at all.

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18. Orthogon on November 23, 2010 9:04 AM writes...

@15: I think this may be the first example of plagiarism I've seen within a string of blog comments.

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19. alig on November 23, 2010 9:17 AM writes...

LOL @First Aid Kits -- exactly like many papers produced from the most populous nation.

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20. Chris D on November 23, 2010 10:09 AM writes...

bad wolf:

You're right! I'm lame for missing the last two sentences. Sorry.

And yet, from this post, it sounds like that one journal with a 31% plagiarism rate is typical enough that the government is getting ready to stomp on journals that publish crap.

Given that, asking about paper quality was the first question that came to my mind about this, not the last.

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21. Chrulle on November 23, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

I can't see how the entities are defined in the article, but a partial explanation of the EUs increase in the middle might be that the EU expanded to include Portugal and Spain in the mid eighties; East Germany in ~90; and Austria, Sweden, and Finland in the mid nineties. Same thing might be a partial explanation for Russia's decline.

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