Research Article: Follow the leader: On the relationship between leadership and scholarly impact in international collaborations

Date Published: June 20, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Zaida Chinchilla-Rodríguez, Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Vincent Larivière, Lutz Bornmann.


National contributions to science are influenced by a number of factors, including economic capacity, national scientific priorities, science policy, and institutional settings and cultures. Nations do not have equal opportunities to access the global scientific market, and therefore, often seek out international partners with complementary resources and expertise. This study aims at investigating national collaboration strategies, with a focus on research leadership—measured through corresponding authorship—and its relationship with scientific impact. Results show that countries with higher R&D investments are more scientifically independent, and confirm that international collaboration is positively related to citation impact. However, leadership in international collaboration is inversely related with a countries’ share of international collaboration and there is a very little relationship between citation impact and international leadership. For instance, most countries—and particularly those that have fewer resources—have higher scientific impact when they are not leading. This suggests that, despite increasing global participation in science, most international collaborations are asymmetrical, and that the research system remains structured around a few dominate nations.

Partial Text

In most social systems, there is a tension between cooperation and competition [1–2]. Scientific activity is no different: while researchers compete for the monopoly of scientific authority [3] they are also cooperating on collaborative projects [4–5]. The tension between cooperation and competition is also apparent in national science policies [6–7]. Scientific research can be seen as a strategic investment that can lead to competitive advantages in terms of economics, security, politics, and health [8]. National science agencies often tout their national competitiveness in production and impact. This emphasis on national production may be seen as antithetical to collaboration; however, the complexity and specialization of modern science has led to the internationalization of the research community [9–10], as evidenced through increased mobility and collaboration [11–19]. In the race for scientific impact, mobile researchers and internationally collaborative projects tend to lead to higher citations [20–26], exacerbating the cooperation-competition dynamic.

Data for this paper were retrieved from Clarivate Analytics Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE), Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), and Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI). For the selected period (2000–2016), the database includes 19,460,980 papers (articles and reviews). The analysis is limited to the 94 countries that produced at least 7,000 documents over the entire period studied; those account for more than 98% of the world output (S1 Table). Research and Development (R&D) expenditures were drawn from the World Data Bank [79] for all countries except for Taiwan, for which we use OECD data.

Countries vary in the proportion of their output that is a result of international collaboration (Fig 1). For many Asian countries (e.g., China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan), the proportion of domestic collaborations exceeds the proportion of international collaboration. On the other end of the spectrum, several smaller and less developed countries (e.g., Azerbaijan, Peru, Panama and Iraq, depend almost exclusively on international collaboration for their output, with low degrees of domestic collaboration and sole authorship.

Competition in the knowledge economy is affected by several factors: differences in institutional settings and cultures [5, 8], national scientific profiles [20, 89–90], scientific policies and economic capacities [47, 91], and mobility [26, 30], among other things. One avenue for overcoming these constraints is to seek out international partners with the necessary resources and expertise. Our analysis sought to understand the balance of this activity across nations and the relative advantages for countries according to their status as corresponding authors.

Strategies for international collaboration do not equally benefit all countries. A disproportionately high reliance on international collaboration may imply that a country lacks the resources necessary to be independent. Collaboration may facilitate scientific advancement in that country, but it comes at a cost. For relatively disadvantaged countries, there is no citation benefit to lead research, but there is one for collaborating. In an era where bibliometric indicators play an important role in the allocation of resources, this may dissuade researchers and institutions from developing and leading their own research agenda, with potentially negative consequences in terms of linguistic and topical diversity. Robust science policy must take into account inequalities in labor and reward rather than defaulting to a universal strategy towards international collaboration.