Scientists without borders

Trends in international research collaboration

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SCIENTISTS collaborate more than ever with their peers in other countries. The scientific community is increasingly international when researching and publishing. An intuition to which a study by Marek Kwiek for the European Parliament Research Service –the think tank resident in the institution– provides an empirical basis. Mr. Kwiek is director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Poznan (Poland). His study Internationalization of EU research organizations, published in August 2019 by the European Parliament, shows data on the growing internationalization of research activity. The number of scientific articles in international co-authorship and their percentage in the scientific production of the different countries have increased significantly in the last ten years. Between 2007 and 2017, 2.2 million articles were published in international co-authorship with the participation of EU researchers. The international collaboration (IRC, International Research Collaboration, in the worldwide accepted English acronym) was given in 1.4 million articles in research centers in the United States, and in 588,000 articles in China, during the same period. The European Union, the United States and China are the three largest producers of science in the world. In 2017, international collaboration represents 44.4% of the papers in the EU; 40%, in the United States, and 22.2%, in China.


The study sponsored by the European Parliament analyzes the data of Scopus, the largest database of abstracts and citation of scientific literature reviewed by scientists, together with WoS (Web of Science). Mr. Kwiek’s research is also nourished by SciVal, a scientific intelligence tool that offers access to the research activity of 230 countries, and to the key indicators of 12,600 research centers.

International scientific collaboration increases in all Member States of the European Union, during the period observed. In the block as a whole, papers written in international teams have gone from 138,822, in 2007, to 262,110, in 2017, 88.81% more. The increase has been 87% in the United States and 309% in China.

The three Member States with outermost regions participate in the general trend. In Spain, IRC articles have increased 128.4% in the last ten years, from 14,726 to 33,648. In France, its number has increased by 73.7%, from 27,526 to 47,813. In Portugal, papers in international collaboration have gone from 3,444 references in 2007, to 9,588, in 2017, up 78.4%.


In Spain, international collaboration occurs in 50% of the papers. The University of La Laguna, in the outermost region of the Canary Islands, is leading IRC, mainly in the field of Physics, due to the intense research activity and the international dimension of the Astrophysical Institute of the Canary Islands, although the latest data served by The academic institution on its website dates back to 2014.


In France, the IRC represents 59% of the references of scientific articles, and in Portugal, 58%.

The study published by the European Parliament concludes that the United States is the first scientific partner in the world, both for China and for the European Union. The most fruitful scientific collaboration is between the United States and China, with 266,244 articles published between 2013 and 2018. It is followed by the research partnership of the United Kingdom and the United States, with 172,887 references. In all the Member States of the European Union, the most important collaboration, for the volume of publications and for the number and quality of the citations they generate, is, by far, with scientists from the United States. The collaboration between science systems of the EU Member States is much less than that between the countries of the bloc and the research centers on the other side of the Atlantic.

Top 20 of partners in International Research Collaboration – EUROPA RUP

Natural Sciences, followed by Medicine and engineering are the fields in which the most collaborated on an international scale in the European Union. The Humanities, Agronomy, and Social Sciences, on the other hand, are the knowledge with a lower IRC.


The study detects that the general trend towards an increase in international collaboration during the period between 2007 and 2017 intensifies in the case of flagship institutions (badges). The only Spanish university selected in the sample is that of Barcelona. Five of these universities (Luxembourg, Vienna, Karolinska Institute, KU Leuven and Oxford), exceed 60% of articles in international collaboration. In another four there are the greatest increases in the number and quality of the citation of their papers (Charles University of Prague, with 337%, Comenius University of Bratislava, with 290%, University of Zagreb, with 266%, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, with 184% and Babes-Bolyai University, with 167% more citations to their articles.


The report includes a theoretical part on incentives and barriers of international cooperation in science. Among the drivers of the IRC, the author mentions individual incentives: “scientists collaborate on an international scale because it is beneficial for them in terms of academic prestige, scientific recognition and access to financing,” says Mr. Kwiek on page “III” of the document prepared by order of the think tank of the European Parliament. It lists other forces that drive the IRC, such as international visibility, contacts or geographical and cultural proximity. Another relevant factor is what the author of the study – following the literature on the issue – calls «the invisible college», or the tendency of researchers to collaborate with colleagues from other countries with whom they share teachers, traditions, epistemological approaches and interests of study.

Scientific excellence is also a decisive driver of international collaboration:

«Research» – observes the author of the study – «shows a significant relationship between academic excellence and the probability of co-authorship; The more experienced a researcher is, the greater the tendency to collaborate; The higher your academic department is in the ranking, the greater your propensity to collaborate; and the higher the researcher is in the ranking, the greater his inclination to collaborate with his peers.

The European States –recommended the study– “should consider supporting their most internationalized universities, and provide them with large-scale financing to develop cross-border collaboration and avoid isolation”

As for the IRC barriers, the highest are the high costs of internationalization, geopolitical conditions, language, history, cultural traditions, the size of the country, its wealth and remoteness. There are institutional obstacles, such as the reputation of the research center or the resources it has. They also make international collaboration difficult, as well as the lack of funding or the conditions for the reconciliation of personal life and work.

Science financing: a relevant option in the outermost regions of the EU

The study concludes with three public policy options in favor of international scientific collaboration. The first option is that the IRC «should be at the center of national research policies.» The author maintains that a “national system of Higher Education focused on increasing the international visibility of its production of academic knowledge needs to install the internationalization of research at the center of its national research policies” (page “VI”).

The second option is to provide sufficient funding to the IRC. «European countries» – the author of the study recommends – «should consider supporting their most internationalized universities and departments, and provide them with large-scale financing to develop the IRC and avoid isolation.»

The recommendation sounds especially pertinent in the context of the outermost regions of the European Union, with universities and research centers that produce cutting-edge science in specific fields such as clean energy, astrophysics, or public policy research, and whose barriers to The IRC are older due to their remoteness from the continent and their island status.

The third option of a friendly public policy for the internationalization of scientific production is «to place individual scientists at the center of internationalization agendas.» Marek Kwiek stresses that, at the IRC, “the critical node is the individual scientist and his will (or his lack of will) to collaborate internationally in research, his will (or his lack of will) to publish in international co-authorship, and his willingness (or lack of will) to publish in academic journals with a high position in the ranking ”(page“ VII ”).

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