It might not always seem that way, but South African science is actually doing very well especially in terms of the number of scientific papers and international collaborations.
This one of the major findings of a recent report at Stellenbosch University (SU).
“Our report shows that South Africa's performance in terms of publication output, international collaboration and citation impact over the past seventeen years has improved significantly," says SU researchers Prof Johann Mouton and Dr Jaco Blanckenberg who compiled the brief report. Mouton is the Director of SciSTIP, a Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy in SU's Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST). Blanckenberg is a post-doctoral fellow at CREST and SciSTIP.
Using the Web of Science database, which consist of many collections, Mouton and Blanckenberg assessed South Africa's bibliometric (the scientific measurement of research documents) performance by looking at 'articles' and 'review articles'. They excluded books, book chapters and conference proceedings. As far as the database itself is concerned, they focused on the Web of Science Core Collection which consists of three Citation Databases: the Science Citation Index Expanded, the Social Sciences Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.
The assessment was done according to three indicators, namely publication output, international collaboration and citation visibility or impact. These three indicators are conventionally used in bibliometric analyses and do capture some of the most important aspects of scientific production.
The researchers do point out, however, that these indicators do not capture other important dimensions of scientific performance such as the relevance and quality of a country's science, the degree to which science impacts on society and the profile of the human resource base of scientific production.
They say their analysis showed that South Africa's publication output in the Web of Science has increased from 3 668 publications in 2000 to 15 550 in 2016.
“This increase translates into an average annual growth rate of 2,9%. South Africa's share of world output more than doubled from 0.4% in 2000 to 0.91% in 2016."
“Not surprisingly, these results have translated in an improved position when comparing SA with other countries. As far as country rank is concerned, South Africa has improved its ranking in the world from number 34 in 2000 to 28 in 2016."
The researchers say the growth in South Africa's publication output has coincided with an increase in the visibility of the country's scientific papers. The visibility of science is partially captured by looking at the number of times research publications are referenced ('cited') in the publications of other researchers.
“The citation impact of SA's scientific papers has increased steadily from 0,8 in 2000 to 1,1 in 2016. This is a very positive result as a score of above 1 means that SA's papers are on average being cited slightly higher than all the papers in the fields that we publish."
The researchers mention that it is important to apply appropriate normalize procedures in these types of analyses in order to make comparative assessments because citation practices differ vastly across different scientific fields.
They add that it is important to keep in mind that an increase in scientific output does not necessarily imply that such output is recognised by other scientists working in the same fields.
Another interesting finding is that South African scientists collaborate significantly more with scientists and scholars internationally than before.
“In 2000, about a third of SA's papers involved co-authorship with at least one foreign author. By 2016 this proportion has increased to 50%."
According to the researchers, this is a desirable development as increased international collaboration often translates in higher citation impact, increases in networks and access to more funding opportunities.
“However, the increase in international collaboration has occurred at the 'expense' of national collaboration (which declined from 47% to 34% over the same period) as well as a clear decline in single-authored publications."
“The good news is that there is a small, but steady, trend of increasing collaboration with scientists and scholars in the rest of Africa with this proportion having increased from a near zero-base in 2000 to 5% in 2016," add the researchers.
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Prof Johann Mouton
Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST)
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