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Science‘s Middle Eastern countries ramp up their scientific publications by Jeffrey Brainard, at a time when they all seem to be still looking for a growth model especially needed in these times of pandemic. Here we have a whole region south and east of the Mediterranean whose elites had not been stranger to social mobilization and street politics in the past, presently sparing a little time to research better ways of life.

The picture above is for illustration and is of Al-Fanar Media.

Iran’s Sharif University of Technology has helped drive an increase in the country’s published scientific papers. MASOUD K/FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CC BY-SA)

After years of lagging scientifically, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have significantly boosted their share of scholarly articles in international journals—as well as citations to those papers—during the past 4 decades, the Clarivate analytics firm said last week. Further growth could occur if the region’s countries boost their low rate of scientific cooperation with each other, it said.

From 1981 to 2019, the region quadrupled its share of research articles and reviews to 8%; among regions and large countries, only China grew by more. Clarivate’s report, based on its Web of Science bibliometric database, notes the “outstanding relative growth” of papers from the Middle East and North Africa came despite international sanctions against Iran and violent conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere.

The report covers 19 countries stretching from Morocco to Iran, but only six accounted for 80% of the 150,000 papers by the region’s scholars in 2019: Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Tunisia.

Iran led the way with 188,163 papers from 2015 to 2019; its output from 2000 to 2019 rose 30-fold. (Despite reports of paper mills and fake peer reviews involving papers by Iranian authors, the study notes efforts in Iran to tame the problem). At least some of Saudi Arabia’s expansion may have come from non-Saudi researchers affiliated with Saudi institutions.

“The notion that science and technology are essential for economic and societal progress, one of the pillars of the current policy in the European Union, applies to [this] region as well,” said Henk Moed, editor-in-chief of Scholarly Assessment Reports, a journal that covers research metrics, who was not involved in the Clarivate report. “The valuable trends presented in the Clarivate report, therefore, have a certain predictive value for economic and political relations in the region, especially in the somewhat longer term, and provide evidence that Iran’s economic and political role in the region will only grow stronger in the years to come.”

Clusters of the region’s papers focused on sustainable development, including soil erosion, and other areas of applied science, Clarivate said.

These and other publications have attracted growing attention: In 2019, 15 of the 19 countries had a citation score higher than the world average (when adjusted for differences across scholarly disciplines); in 2000, almost all had been well below.

The region’s international collaborations also increased, with 45% of its papers reporting co-authors from other countries in 2019; most often, the co-authors were in the United States. By comparison, the percentage in Western Europe was 65%. Worldwide, articles with such collaborations tend to attract higher citations. But countries in the Middle East and North Africa collaborated little with each other: Only 5% of their articles in 2019 had a co-author from a different country within the region.

Skirting the challenge of bridging long-standing tensions within the region, the Clarivate report encourages the countries to forge closer research ties, which “could improve competitiveness between the region and the rest of the world by focusing on shared needs and priorities.” One mechanism for encouraging regional collaboration could be a joint research-funding organization, similar to that of the European Union, the report said. Focusing on research might also “create more robust educational and social transformation through human resource capacity.”

“This would do much,” the report concludes, to “visibly rebuild the international reputation of Islamic, Arab, Persian and Turkish learning and scholarship that sustained the Western world for centuries.”Posted in: 

Jeffrey Brainard

Jeffrey Brainard joined Science as an associate news editor in 2017. He covers an array of topics and edits the In Brief section in the print magazine.