Research and Collaboration in Africa

More than 50 nations, hundreds of languages, and a welter of ethnic and cultural diversity.  A continent possessed of abundant natural resources but also perennially wracked by a now-familiar litany of post-colonial woes: poverty, want, political instability and corruption, disease, and armed conflicts frequently driven by ethnic and tribal divisions but supplied by more mature economies.

The current research landscape in Africa is most certainly affected by ongoing continental conflicts, but can analysis of research performance and trends help them transcend such limitations? And what might they do to become emerging leaders on the world stage… like Brazil, India and China are quickly becoming?

For this analysis we have taken the broadest possible view as a starting point and we then progressively move in on more specific aspects of Africa’s research activity.Our first approach to assessing African science is to divide the continent into major regions and see how each fares in terms of output.

Figure 1 does this, plotting the annual number of papers for African nations aggregated into three very broad regional groups: north, central and south.These regional groups broadly correspond to the regional scheme employed by the United Nations, although the five UN groups have been compressed into three, with the nations designated by the UN as “eastern,” “middle,” and “western” generally placed into the “central” region for the purposes of this survey.  (See adjoining box.)

The “south” region corresponds to the member nations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an inter-governmental body devoted to economic development and other measures to raise the standard of living in its constituent countries.

Two nations listed by the UN — Saint Helena and Western Sahara — are not currently included in the Thomson Reuters National Science Indicatorsdatabase, from which these figures were derived.


FIGURE 1: Africa’s output of publications indexed on Thomson Reuters Web of Science databases between 1999 and 2008, with papers grouped by region (see box above for index of countries by region)

For the years 1999 to 2008, the central region of Africa produced the smallest quantity of papers, roughly 7,100 per year, despite being the region with the greatest number of countries: more than 30. The north region actually accounted for the highest number of papers in recent years, with more than 10,500 in 2008, even though the region consists of only six countries.  Similarly, the south region, although made up of only 14 countries, also produced more than 10,000 papers. This immediately points to an uneven distribution of research and innovative capacity at both country and regional levels.

For scale, it should be appreciated that the total of about 27,000 papers per year is about the same volume of published output as The Netherlands.

A breakdown of these figures demonstrates the extent to which each region — and African science as a whole — is dominated by three nations: Egypt in the north, Nigeria in the middle, and South Africa in the south. In the ten years between 1999 and 2008, for example, Egypt produced nearly 30,000 papers which was about three times the total for Tunisia, its next-place and regional neighbor.

In west-central Africa, Nigeria’s total for the same period was over 10,000, compared to roughly 6,500 for Kenya which is the leading research economy in the east of the continent.  South Africa’s dominance, as might be expected, is even more pronounced: nearly 47,000 papers during 1999-2008, compared to the southern region’s next-most-prolific nation, Tanzania, which fielded just over 3,000.

Table 1 provides a closer look at African output, presenting the five most-prolific nations in each of 21 main fields, according to the classification scheme employed for Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators.  Here we have also looked at a more recent slice of activity and the analysis reflects papers indexed in the five-year window between 2004 and 2008.

A discernible pattern in Table 1 is Africa’s relatively high representation — as a share of world publications — in fields that are relevant to natural resources. The highest percentage of any field, for example, is South Africa’s 1.55% share of Plant & Animal Science.  Not far behind is the same country’s 1.29% portion of Environment/Ecology.

TABLE 1: The most prolific African nations during the five-year period 2004-2008 in the 21 main fields used in Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators database. The top five nations are highlighted below by color.

Indicators shows that many of South Africa’s most highly-cited papers in this field pertain to climate change and its effects on plant propagation. Following this theme, South Africa’s 1.13% share of Geosciences is in keeping with the region’s mineral richness. In short, Africa, as was noted above, is a continent abundant in natural resources. The question, of course, is how much does Africa itself benefit from those resources?


By Jonathan Adams, Christopher King, and Daniel Hook.

Global research report, courtesy Thomson Reuters


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