Science and Research

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Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2018) - "Science and Research". Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

Human progress is achieved through new discoveries and their implementation, whether it be healthcare, housing, technology or infrastructure. These developments come about mostly through experimentation and research. The international research community refers to the collective and collaborative research efforts of academics around the world. Historically, research was done independently by small groups or individuals working in the more developed countries. The proliferation of the internet has arguably increased the pace of scientific discovery and further integrated research communities around the world. More information is available on higher education here, or on the global rise of education here.

I. Empirical View

I.1 The Birth of International the Research Community

Translations of books and the rise of Latin as the universal language of academia connected different national research communities, effectively forming an international research community. This development intensified and researchers increasingly worked together. The following graph shows the rise in the number of international congresses and international organizations. The onset of the First World War damaged this effort considerably.

The rise of the international scientific community, 1850-1920 – Cambridge Economic History Vol. 21

The rise of the international scientific community 1850-1920 - Cambridge Economic History Vol. 2

Compared to today, the research community in the early days of modern science was still very small and consisted mostly of scientists from countries that modernised first. The systemisation of elements in the periodic table was suggested independently by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and the German chemist Julius Lothar Meyer in 1869 and 1870, and more and more elements were added as they were discovered over the next decades. Therefore the periodic table shown below is an interesting way of demonstrating which the most influential nations were during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Periodic table of elements with each element as the flag of the country where the scientists were working when they made their discoveries – Gallagher2

Periodic table of elements with each element as the flag of the country where the scientists were working when they made their discoveries - Gallagher

There exist many examples in mathematics of multiple discovery prior to the development of an international research community. The most famous example of which is the discovery of calculus in the 17th century by Isaac Newton (England) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Germany), but also arguably Pierre de Fermat. Similarly, in the 18th century Oxygen was independently discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele (Sweden, 1773), Joseph Priestley (England, 1774), and Antoine Lavoisier (France, 1777).

I.2 Nobel Prizes

A useful way to appreciate just how the international scientific community grew larger is to look at the nationality of nobel prize winners.3 The following graph shows the nationality of nobel prize winners by nationality since the prize was established. The share of nobel prizes going to the old European powers has declined, while the share going to the US and other economies has increased. German-born laureates were ahead during the first three quarters of the century; in 1976 US-born laureates took over. Note the substantial differences to the citizenship-based ranking, reflecting brain drain from Germany and other countries to the US (and also the UK).

All Nobel Prizes 1901-2009: Evolution of cumulative national shares by country of birth (or home of organization) at the time of the award, 1901-2009 – Schmidhuber4
Evolution of nobel prize shares by country of birth Evolution of nobel prize shares by country of organisation

I.3 Global Research Community Today

The global research community today is considerably larger than it was in the 20th century. The following chart shows the explosion in the number of journals in all fields of science over the past century. At the start of the 20th century there were less than 200 journals in every major field of study, and 100 years later, there are now thousands of journals and around 1600 in geology alone!

Scientific periodicals by subject, 1780–2003 – North (2005)5

Scientific Periodicals by subject, 1780–2003 – North (2005)

There are journals today that are entirely devoted to measuring the size of the scientific community, the international research network and the impact of research. This field is known as scientometrics and the major journals are Scientometrics, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and Journal of Informetrics.

Britain's Royal Society conducted research into the composition of citation in scientific journal articles to track the recent changes taking place. They find that the proportion of citation in journals published in the established academic world (the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan) have been declining as more and more citation come from developing economies. At the same time, the total number of citations has been increasing. The report also finds that academic papers that are the product of international collaboration now make up 35% of the total, compared to 25% only 15 years ago.6

Number of global citations in scientific journals, 1999-2003 and 2004-2008 – The Economist7

Global citations in scientific journals - The Economist

I.4 Open Access Science

From the previous map, we see that large parts of the world are still not part of the international research community. These countries are mostly poorer, and one obstacle that prevents them from entering the community is the large cost of academic publications. One positive trend that progressively eliminates this obstacle by radically reducing the costs of scientific knowledge is the creation of open access journals. As the following graph shows, they are a very recent development: in the year 2000 only 20,700 articles were published in open-access journals. This number has been rising rapidly, and no end is in sight: in 2011 340,000 articles were published in open access journals.

Annual volumes of articles in full immediate open access journals split by type of open access journal, 2000-2011 – Laakso and Björk (2012)8

Annual volumes of articles in full immediate open access journals, split by type of open access journal - Laakso and Björk (2012)