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Diverse research nations ‘more agile in Covid-19 response’

“More even” research bases drove broader range of pandemic studies, says report

Countries such as the United States and Germany, where there is a good spread of research across disciplines, were faster in retooling their scientific operations to battle the pandemic than nations with narrower focuses, according to a study comparing millions of papers.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information run by the data analytics company Clarivate, said a vital lesson emerged from his team’s work: “Nations with a more diverse research base respond more comprehensively to an unprecedented scientific challenge.”

In a 16 June report, the team—which also included ISI head of research David Pendlebury and its director, Martin Szomszor—found that diversity of research “provides agility and the scope for recombining knowledge in unexpected interdisciplinary situations”.

Assessing spread

As a proxy for diversity—defined as “the co-occurrence of several distinct topics or disciplines”—the authors evaluated how evenly spread research papers in various countries were across 248 categories, using Clarivate’s Web of Science database.

The authors calculated a ‘Gini coefficient’, where 0 would indicate perfect equality, with all 248 categories having a similar number of papers. A score of 1 would indicate maximum inequality, with most papers clustered in just a few categories.

Countries that were least diverse in the 1980s, such as China and South Korea, have steadily increased their diversity, although they had not reached the levels of already diverse countries such as the United States, Canada and Germany by the last data points in 2017.

“Unquestionably, the near-universal trend is towards greater national evenness in the spread of papers across subject categories,” the ISI team reported.

Covid comparisons

To analyse how diversity affected the response to Covid-19, Adams and his colleagues searched for terms related to the pandemic in papers, abstracts and keywords. They found a total of 67,756 pandemic-related papers, which they sorted into 40 topics covering areas including epidemiology, virtual learning, mental health, food security and crisis management.

They were then able to compare the evenness of papers in a country’s Covid-19 research to its national research base. They found that countries with more even research bases, including the United States, Germany and the UK, tended to “support a response across a wider range of Covid-19 topics”.

These nations were more “agile” in contrast to comparatively more “specialist” countries, which had a less even spread of papers skewing towards certain topics, they said. “Countries with a diverse research base responded with a rapid and comprehensive range of innovative research—but most specialist countries did not,” said the team.

An exception was Brazil, which had a more balanced spread of Covid-19 papers than India and China, despite having a similar level of “evenness” of research as these Asian countries in its overall research landscape.

Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Ex Libris, a ProQuest company. In May, it was announced that Clarivate had signed a definitive agreement to acquire ProQuest.