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Helping PhD students collaborate internationally with Fulbright-Elsevier partnership

Fulbright scholarships sponsored by Elsevier give young researchers the opportunity to study at top US universities

Elsevier’s Dr. Michiel Kolman (center) with Elsevier's 2017 Fulbright scholarship recipients Steven Gilbers of Groningen University and Christel de Bakker of Eindhoven University of Technology – at the Fulbright award ceremony at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Elsevier’s Dr. Michiel Kolman (center) with Elsevier's 2017 Fulbright scholarship recipients Steven Gilbers of Groningen University and Christel de Bakker of Eindhoven University of Technology – at the Fulbright award ceremony at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos this week, delegates from around the world will discuss the challenge of “creating a shared future in a fractured world.” The aim: to “shape the future by joining this unparalleled global effort in co-design, co-creation and collaboration.”

In high-profile events like Davos – and in the daily work that takes place in laboratories, classrooms and offices – the need for collaboration is evident and growing. Even with today’s technology and the increasing potential of data, it is still rare to uncover a new scientific or medical fact alone. Having a good research team and collaborating with other experts in the field is invaluable at all stages of the scientific process – and increasingly, that collaboration is international.

However, researchers, especially younger researchers, increasingly find themselves in a very competitive research environment, and establishing their place on a good research team can be difficult – and even more so if it involves collaborating across borders and oceans.

Elsevier actively supports programs that foster international collaboration. One way we do that for younger scientists is through the prestigious Fulbright Scholar Program, which gives PhD candidates an opportunity to study with the top research teams in the US for six months.

“As a Fulbright alumnus myself, I can tell you that the experiences I had 20 years ago at Columbia University have only increased in importance,” said Dr. Michiel Kolman, Elsevier’s SVP of Information Industry Relations and Academic Ambassador Emeritus. “As a PhD student starting out, to be able to expand your network with the top researchers in your field right from the start is simply invaluable."

Dr. Kolman added that the value of research collaboration extends beyond personal benefit. “Researchers today, more than ever before, need to be able to look beyond their own boundaries to solve the challenges our society faces,” he said.

Studies have shown that research-intensive nations benefit from collaborative research, particularly international collaborations, as they typically result in higher citation impact, a quality measure of research articles. For example, if you look at published research from 2012 to 2016 by researchers at institutions based in the Netherlands, they have a small output of 286,000 articles published. However, they place first in terms of the quality of those articles as measured by Field Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI). For the Netherlands, the FWCI is 1.80, well above the world’s average of 1.0.

If we take a closer look at the collaboration between the US and the Netherlands, the articles with authors from both the US and the Netherlands have an FWCI of 3.26, which is more than three times the world’s average, as measured by SciVal based on Scopus data.

The Fulbright scholarship program was established in the United States in the 1940s with the aim to “promote international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” Today, the program operates in over 140 countries and is focused on offering research, study and teaching opportunities to recent graduates and graduate students.

Elsevier has been a sponsor of the Fulbright Scholarship for many, enabling young researchers from both the UK and Netherlands to study at leading US institutions. This sponsorship contributes not only to young researchers but to supporting international collaboration for the wider UK, Dutch and US research communities.

Fulbright Scholars say international collaboration was crucial for their PhD projects

In 2017, Elsevier’s Fulbright scholarship recipients in the Netherlands were Steven Gilbers of Groningen University and Christel de Bakker of Eindhoven University of Technology.

Steven’s PhD project focuses on the linguistics of hip-hop music, with his scholarship taking him to study at UCLA and NYU. Christel’s PhD project will examine office energy use with researchers from UC Berkeley.

For both, international collaboration is essential for their research.

“There are only a few things in life I find interesting – hip-hop music and language – so I thought why not combined my two interests as my PhD project,” Steven explained. “Within hip-hop culture, it is really important how you express your regional identity through language. There is only one place to find native African American speakers within hip-hop culture, and that is on the east and west coast of America. For me, it is really valuable to have an international perspective on this type of research. My PhD is going to be much richer in context, perspectives and data now that I am getting this opportunity.”

Christel also set out to study a different culture – office culture, that is: “I am interested in how office design effects your perception and work attitude. In the US, they have a different type of work environment, with cubicles rather than the open plan offices you see in Europe. I have a background in user experience, and the research team at Berkeley have more technical knowledge.

“The research world is a very internationally orientated, and travelling helps you understand other people’s point of view and helps to broaden your own perspective. This is an opportunity to gain new contacts and improve my English and perhaps even publish an article.”

International collaboration could help explain the high impact of Dutch research. In fact, 54.7 percent of Dutch research is published with one or more international authors. This is well above the world’s average, which is just below 20 percent. For example, if we zoom into the research output between the University of Groningen and New York University, where Fulbright winner Steven is studying, we see that together they published a small number of extremely highly cited articles; 110 articles with an impact of 23.33 – 23 times the world’s average.

As Christel points out, the world of research is also very international. It is very common for researchers to move from one research team to another throughout their career. An Elsevier study of researcher mobility from 2013 showed that researchers who are the most active in moving abroad, migrating and returning to their home countries are the most productive in terms of their published research. The data clearly suggests that mobility is good for research. In this 2013 study, researchers from the Netherlands who were active in moving around, were also productive in attracting the highest number of citations for their research articles: approximately 29 citations per article.

Programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship are so important in helping young researchers to understand the importance of international collaboration and how international research is becoming. In their time abroad, these Fulbrighters will experience many differences not only in language and culture but in administrative systems and other support systems.

Elsevier’s Fulbright winner from 2016, Suzanne de Bruijn, reflected on her time as a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. “It was interesting to work with one of the few groups in the world specialized in the area of flowers, where my study is also focused,” she said. “I hope to turn my experience into a chapter for my thesis, and it was great to have a totally different view on my topic. I am always up for travelling and adventure, and my advice is to enjoy the experience because six months is over so fast!”

Supporting Fulbright Scholars in the UK

Scholarships and awards are a way of motivating and inspiring researchers early in their career to produce the stand-out research necessary to succeed in the global competition for talent and resources. In addition to supporting Dutch Fulbright scholars, Elsevier supports the US-UK Fulbright Commission to support the growth and development of UK research talent.

Elsevier’s activities, coordinated by Sheila Finucane and Petra Ullrich, include hosting the Early Career Researcher Awards in the UK in a biannual award program, and in 2015 we introduced a new award, the Researcher’s Choice Communication Award, which recognizes researchers who actively promote and use their research to engage with the general public. Meet the award winners and hear the impact of the awards on their career.

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