Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / September 30, 2019

International research collaboration – a key feature of the new global science landscape

The phenomenal growth in collaboration between scientists and institutions located in different countries began 30 years ago, when the bipolar world, in which most internationally active scientists belonged either to the Soviet block or to Western countries, collapsed.

© Kolonko / Shutterstock

Written by Gianluca Quaglio,


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© Kolonko / Shutterstock

The phenomenal growth in collaboration between scientists and institutions located in different countries began 30 years ago, when the bipolar world, in which most internationally active scientists belonged either to the Soviet block or to Western countries, collapsed. Today, international collaboration in research is the core of contemporary higher-education and science systems. While in 1970, only 2 % of articles indexed in Web of Science were internationally co-authored papers, in 1980 the share was 5 %, in 1990, it rose to 9 %, reaching 16 % in 2000, until in 2013, almost every fourth publication (23 %) was written by authors from more than one country.

STOA study on ‘Internationalisation of European Union research organisations’

A recently published STOA study on ‘Internationalisation of EU research organisations‘ examines the changing nature of academic knowledge production in the EU-28 Member States, and its development towards radically increasing internationalisation. The report combines theory on international research collaboration (IRC) with the collection and analysis of the most up-to-date empirical data. A number of policy options for the improvement of IRC at the European level are also presented.

The number of internationally co-authored papers is on the rise both across EU-28 countries and across the world more generally, with different dynamics of internationalisation in different countries and European regions, especially in EU-15 countries (that joined the EU before 2004) compared to EU-13 countries (that joined the EU after 2004). At the same time, there are significant differences across fields of science. While the world seems to collaborate in research mostly on a nation-by-nation basis, Europe is exceptional in its long-term, large-scale, intra-regional research collaborations, including collaborations funded by consecutive EU framework programmes for research.

Collaboration enables the sharing of knowledge, skills and techniques, exchange of different views, cross-fertilisation of ideas and intellectual companionship, helping to expand networks of contacts and enhance the visibility of research work. IRC tends to increase research productivity: in general, multiple-institution papers are more highly cited than single-institution papers, and internationally co-authored papers are more highly cited than those with domestic co-authors. The STOA study shows that researchers prefer to collaborate in fields where they can share basic ideas and fundamental knowledge, rather than in those where they may develop commercially viable results.

Types of research and international research collaborations

The STOA study explores different types of research collaboration: (i) IRC, in the sense of collaboration between academics located in different countries; (ii) national research collaboration, with multi-authored research outputs, where all authors are affiliated with more than one institution within a single country; (iii) institutional research collaboration, linked to a multi-authored research output, where all authors are affiliated with the same institution; and, finally, (iv) the ‘solo research’ mode in science, i.e. a single-authored research output, where the sole author is affiliated with an institution in a given country.

Not all sciences are equally driven by the internationalisation demand. The STOA study recognised four types of international research collaboration: (i) data-driven collaboration (as in genetics, demography, epidemiology); (ii) resource-driven collaboration (as in seismology, zoology); (iii) equipment-driven collaboration (as in astronomy, high-energy physics), and (iv) theory-driven collaboration (as in mathematics, economics or philosophy).

Barriers to research internationalisation

The personal decision to engage in international collaboration in research needs to be viewed in the context of a trade-off between collaboration investments and expected collaboration effects. Maintaining too many or too demanding relations with international collaborators in research can lead to high costs, resulting from, among other things, information overload, unclear responsibility, and communication constraints. The STOA study debates types of barriers to IRC: from macro-level barriers (geopolitics, history, language, cultural traditions, country research propensity, geographical distance), to institutional barriers (reputation, resources), and individual barriers (predilections, intellectual or financial attractiveness).

Empirical data from the STOA study

The STOA report analyses the macro-level of countries and the meso-level of flagship institutions to assess the cross-national and cross-institutional differentiation in IRC in 2007-2017. The aggregates of EU-28 results are analysed in the global context of China and the United States of America (USA), the two biggest academic knowledge producers.

Macro-level of countries

The number of articles written under international collaboration in the study period was 2 193 504 in the EU-28, 1 437 621 in the USA and 588 087 in China. In 2017, the share of internationally co-authored papers was 44 % for EU-28 (47 % for EU-15 countries and 39 % for EU-13 countries), 40 % for the USA and 22 % for China. The share of internationally co-authored publications in Europe is thus 4.6 percentage points higher than in the USA and 22.2 percentage points higher than in China. IRC has risen in every EU-28 country in the study period. In the EU-28, the largest number of articles published in international collaboration in 2017 was, by far, in the natural sciences, followed by the medical sciences, and the lowest number was in the humanities.

Meso-level of flagship research institutions

The analysis at the macro-level (countries) is accompanied in this report by an analysis at the meso-level for selected flagship research institutions. In the most general terms, collaboration trends over time are similar for EU-28 countries and for their flagship institutions; however, the internationalisation trends are more intense for flagship institutions than for countries. The percentage share of international collaboration is on average lower for flagship universities located in EU-13 countries than for those located in EU-15 countries. While no flagship universities located in EU-13 countries exceeded the level of 60 % of international collaboration, five flagship universities in EU-15 exceeded this level.

Policy options

The study identifies a number of broad policy options for supporting the internationalisation of EU research organisations. They can be briefly summarised as follows:

IRC should be at the centre of national research policies: Placing the internationalisation of research at the centre of national research policies refers to all levels of operation of higher education systems, from national to institutional, to departmental, to individual. Internationalisation-supportive research policies should promote international publication channels both in direct block funding to their institutions and in indirect, individual-level competitive research funding.

Large-scale funding should be provided for IRC: Internationalisation costs are increasing across all national systems in Europe. The rise of internationalisation-related costs needs to be noted and reflected in both budget size and its internal distribution.

Individual scientists should be at the centre of national internationalisation agendas: Today, the individual scientist matters greatly for IRC. A bottom-up approach, with maximum flexibility as to how, with whom, and on which topic to collaborate internationally in research, unreservedly combined with the hard line of research excellence as defined through top publications only, should always work better than any other set of recommendations for IRC programmes and should be strengthened.

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