9 questions to test your global research savvy

Elsevier’s big data and analytics reveal surprising facts about the international research landscape



The research landscape is complex and multifaceted, encompassing a cycle of inputs to outputs and usage of research. Understanding it can be essential for strategic decision-making for governments, research funders and institutions. The landscape is also changing, with emerging countries such as China and India growing rapidly in scholarly output in the past 10 to 15 years.

These factors have changed much of what we took as a given for a long time.

Elsevier’s large online platforms, including Scopus, ScienceDirect and Mendeley, provide comprehensive data about the global research landscape. The OECD, UNESCO, WIPO, and the European Commission provide further context to these data. Using these sources, we have drawn nine important facts among the top 77 most prolific countries in research output.

1. Which country invests the largest proportion of its GDP in R&D?

The answer is South Korea (4 percent). Close to 80 percent of its R&D expenditure is performed by the Business Enterprise sector. This is likely to be linked to the fact that South Korea is home to many R&D intensive companies in the world such as Samsung and LG.

2. Which country has the largest percentage of its population as researchers?

Israel. In 2012, 0.83 percent of Israel’s population were researchers, more than twice the proportion of the United States.

3. Which country has the largest proportion of female researchers?

It is probably unexpected for most of us that Latvia, followed by Lithuania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have the largest proportion of female researchers; indeed, more than half of their researchers are women. For most of the other European countries, the proportion is between 20 percent and 40 percent, but it varies across fields of research. Take Germany for example: in 2014 56.6 percent of Germany’s researchers in Veterinary Science are female, while in Computer Science the corresponding number is only 15.3 percent. In general, Agriculture, Medicine, and Health-related subject areas have the highest proportion of female researchers. Subject areas in the Natural Sciences and Engineering have the lowest proportions.

4. Which country’s researchers are the most mobile internationally?

In terms of researcher mobility, it is reasonable to expect that small, affluent, developed research nations should lead, and indeed, the top three countries, with nearly 90 percent of their researchers mobile on a short- or long-term basis are Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Qatar. By contrast, it is China whose research base is the least mobile, with nearly four-fifths of its researchers having published only under Chinese affiliations since 1996.

5. Which country produces the largest number of publications and receives the most digital reads and citations?

Stories on research superpower countries abound, and for many of us it’s no longer news to read that the United States leads in annual scholarly output, followed increasingly closely by China. They are then trailed by the UK, Germany, Japan, India and France. Of course, from the USA’s and China’s top position in number of papers, it’s easy to guess that they also have the largest number of highly-cited papers and receive the most citations, and downloads on ScienceDirect. On the Mendeley platform, the UK still receives more reads than China, ranking after only the USA.

6. Which country has the largest proportion of interdisciplinary research?

Among the research superpower countries mentioned above, the countries with the largest proportion of interdisciplinary research are India followed by China, even though the citation impact of their publications is still behind mature research countries such as the USA and UK. We don’t know whether it’s because researchers from emerging countries are more open-minded to adopt knowledge from other disciplines, because the organizational structure of these countries is newer and more flexible to accommodate interdisciplinary research, or for another reason.

7. Which country specializes the most in the following fields: Medical & Health Sciences, Engineering & Technology, Natural Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and Humanities?

In the Medical & Health Sciences, it’s Cuba that has the strongest focus. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find out that this nation is strongly invested in this field, since it has been hitting the news about its healthcare revolution and tentative medical breakthroughs.

In Engineering & Technology, China takes first place; perhaps this does not come as such a surprise when we realize what a large proportion of products found worldwide bear the words “made in China” – the country has a strong technological focus. Belarus leads in the Natural Sciences, while Kenya does in the Agricultural Sciences: its scholarly output is over 4 times more concentrated than the world’s in this area. This can be tentatively explained by the importance of Agriculture to Kenya’s economy and the challenges it faces in this domain. Finally, we find that South Africa’s scholarly output is nearly 4 times as concentrated as that of the world in the Humanities.

8. Which country collaborates the most actively with the international, national and institutional research community?

Examined through the lens of the country of the affiliations of co-authors on published papers, it also shows somewhat unanticipated results. Given its researchers’ high mobility and the small size of the country, it makes sense that Qatar is number two in international collaboration (in which co-authors on a paper are affiliated with institutes in at least two different countries), with over 80 percent of its papers falling into this category.

But did you know that number one is Kenya?

In fact, there are several countries, often developing and with limited research bases, that rely heavily on international collaboration to power their research. National collaboration (in which co-authors on a paper are affiliated with at least two institutes in one country) is even more surprising, with Brazil, Taiwan and Turkey topping the list – a very disparate group of countries.

And the three nations with the largest percentages of institutional collaboration (in which co-authors on a paper are affiliated with the same institute) are large Asian countries: India, China, and Malaysia. These are perhaps more similar in the sense that their scholarly output has been growing strongly in recent years, so it may be that they have the resources needed to collaborate intensively at institutional level. The country with the largest proportion of papers with only one author is South Africa – maybe this is due to its subject specialization in the Humanities, a traditionally less collaborative field.

Share of internationally collaborative publications out of a country’s total publications. The color (light to dark) indicates the share from 16% to 81%. The top five countries with the highest shares are labelled with country name and share of international collaboration. (Source: Scopus)

9. Which country files the largest number of patent applications, and which country is granted the largest number of patents?

Given their large size, it’s expected that China files the largest number of patent applications, followed by the US. But it’s Japan that has the largest number of patents granted. Although Japan’s research base is more modest, its strong technological and innovative focus contributes to its success on this front.

While some global research facts are well-established, others are more surprising. By diving further into the ever expanding sea of data available to us, we may yet find other unexpected pearls of knowledge about the world of research.

Related resources

Mapping Gender in the German Research Arena , Elsevier

Mapping Gender in the German Research Arena, Elsevier

A Review of the UK's Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based Approach, Report to the UK HE funding bodies and MRC by Elsevier

A Review of the UK's Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based Approach, Report to the UK HE funding bodies and MRC by Elsevier

She Figures 2015, European Commission

She Figures 2015, European Commission


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