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African research by the numbers

African researchers are more likely to achieve impact if they receive funding from foreign sources, a bibliometric analysis has found.

The authors of bibliometric chapters in the book The Next Generation of Scientists in Africa, published on 6 November, examined publications on the Web of Science with African authors that acknowledged funding sources between 2009 and 2014.

The South African National Research Foundation funded over three times more African papers than the two closest competitors, the European Union and the United States National Institutes of Health.

Only two other African funders—Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the South African Medical Research Council—beat the threshold for inclusion of 1,200 papers over the 5-year time frame.

Papers funded by African organisations appeared to have far less impact than those funded by the prominent international funders. The authors employed a field-normalised citation score (MNCS) as its impact metric. This is a citation score that takes different research fields into account because some fields accrue citations faster than others.

The EU and NIH had an MNCS score double that of the NRF. Funding by private companies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had an even higher difference: two-and-a-half times that of the NRF. The US’ National Science Foundation’s score was three times higher than the NRF’s.

A similar pattern can be observed with papers in highly cited journals. Close to a third of papers funded by the US NSF appeared in these journals, while the NRF’s figure was under 10 per cent. The SAMRC had a slightly higher number, at 10.3 per cent. The top eight international funders all had between 20 to 24 per cent of their papers in top journals.

Funders not from the US or Europe did not see the same degree of their papers in highly cited journals. For Tunisia’s ministry this figure was 5.4 per cent. And only 3.6 per cent of Saudi Arabia-funded papers appeared in the top journals. The Saudi papers also had the lowest impact.

The NRF is by far the dominant funding source on the continent. This should not be surprising as South Africa published by far the most papers. That does not mean that the NRF gave the most money to African researchers: just that it was acknowledged as a funder by the most papers.

Foreign funding correlated with collaboration. Of the papers with international funding, almost all involved partnerships between African and international researchers. The percentage of international partnerships in papers with foreign funding was in the high 90s for almost all the foreign funders. An exception is  the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which had 78 per cent international partnerships. DAAD-funded publications appeared less in top-cited journals, lower than the NRF, and with a citation score comparable with African funders.

Almost all the African papers funded by the NSF and the National Natural Science Foundation of China involved non-African partners, with 99.7 per cent having Chinese partners. For African funders the international partnership figure is below 50 per cent, with national partnerships dominant.

Share of global output rises

Publication by African researchers is generally on the up. Total papers per year increased three-and-a-half times between 2005 and 2015. Africa’s share of the global output doubled from 1.5 per cent in 2005 to 3.2 per cent in 2016.

South Africa is still the dominant publisher of papers, but there are signs that other countries, especially in North Africa, are catching up. South Africa’s share of Africa’s total publications decreased between 2005-2010 and 2011-2015, while Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria all improved. Tunisia also increased its publications per capita, overtaking South Africa.

The three North African countries are second to fourth in total papers, behind South Africa. Nigeria is fifth, although its share has also declined. South Africa accounted for 28.2 per cent of all African papers at the end of 2015. Kenya’s share slightly decreased, while Uganda and Ethiopia both increased between the two time-periods measured.

Overall, the picture is skewed. Thirteen countries contributed 90 per cent of all African publications. Collaboration between only African countries is virtually non-existent, at 2 per cent of total papers.

Thematically, the continent was strong on health. Papers with African authors in tropical medicine accounted for a quarter of the world’s output. Parasitology and infectious diseases were similarly strong.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe