15 February 2021

Research literature increasingly dominated by a few 'elite researchers'

Research

A new sociology study shows that a small international elite of researchers is increasingly being quoted in scientific journals. In 15 years, researchers representing the top one percent most cited scientists have increased their share of all scientific citations from 14 to 21 percent.

Microskop. Photo: Colourbox
Photo: Colourbox

Having your scientific articles quoted by other researchers is one of the most important benchmarks of scientific visibility and thus prestige in academia.

But it is a recognition that is increasingly being concentrated on a very small elite of researchers who will thus be dominating the research literature even more than earlier.

This is the conclusion in a new review of no less than 26 million scientific articles in the field of natural and medical sciences, which has been carried out by Mathias Wullum Nielsen, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, in collaboration with Senior Researcher Jens Peter Andersen from the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at Aarhus University.

Researchers in the citation elite are gaining very influential positions in the science communication network, and their ideas are spreading rapidly among other researchers.

Mathias Wullum Nielsen

Just over four million researchers have contributed to the reviewed articles. Out of these, the one percent most frequently quoted by other researchers accounted for 21 percent of all citations in 2015.

This is an increase of 50 percent since 2000, when the share of the ‘research elite’ was just 14 percent. Converted to a Gini coefficient that describes the degree of inequality in a population (where 1 is absolute inequality), this corresponds to an increase from 0.65 to 0.70.

It is a very significant inequality and, as it is also increasing, it ought to be subject to a debate about diversity within the research environments, according to Mathias Wullum Nielsen.

“Researchers in the citation elite are gaining very influential positions in the science communication network, and their ideas are spreading rapidly among other researchers. This may mean that new research ideas and perspectives that do not originate from this elite are spread more slowly and are subject to increasingly difficult conditions in the scientific literature,” he says.

Structures behind the concentration on a few researchers

The two researchers have not investigated the reason why we see the increasing concentration in a small group of researchers. However, based on other research, they point to several possible factors such as the tendency that these days, researchers are more often associated with large research projects in secondary roles rather than just working on their own projects.

Besides, an increasing number of researchers have a relatively short career within academia, where they often hold fixed-term positions before moving on. Finally, the development may be a reflection of the fact that research funding is increasingly being given to the most cited and thus established researchers.

And that tendency is problematic because it quickly becomes self-perpetuating, says Mathias Wullum Nielsen.

“Frequently cited researchers will typically find it easier to attract the large external research grants that make it possible to build large research groups and collaborative networks. The increased research capacity can then be translated into additional publications and citations, which make those that are already successful even more competitive in connection with future research applications.”

Thus, Mathias Wullum Nielsen sees no sign that the trend will reverse itself.

“In a global research system where ‘excellence’ in funding and job applications is increasingly measured on the basis of citation and publication rates, we can probably expect that the concentration of funds and citations on a small elite will continue to increase,” he assesses.

The US losing power – Denmark and Europe gaining ground

In addition to looking at the distribution of citations among researchers, Mathias Wullum Nielsen and Jens Peter Andersen have investigated which countries and universities have lost or gained ground since 2000.

Here, the analysis shows that the United States' dominant position within international natural and medical science research has been somewhat weakened measured by the country's share of the most cited elite researchers. Conversely, a number of European countries, including Denmark, are gaining ground. The same is true for Australia and New Zealand.

Our results indicate that the power balance in the global scientific system is slowly shifting, and – in contrast to the growing inequality in citations – I see this as a healthy sign.

Mathias Wullum Nielsen

The development is also reflected at university level, where the University of Copenhagen, in line with universities in, e.g., Amsterdam, London, Sydney and Melbourne, finds itself in a relatively stronger position, while American heavyweights such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford are losing ground.

In the period 2000-2004, the top-cited researchers at the University of Copenhagen accounted for approximately 1.5 percent of all researchers that are actively pursuing publishing. In the period 2010-2014, this share had increased to approximately 2.1 percent.

Again, there may be several factors at play: from the general globalisation and new information technologies that facilitate communication, to countries and universities' efforts to attract and retain researchers.

These are slow, almost 'tectonic', movements among the scientific communities that do not yet challenge US research dominance. Still, it is telling us something, says Mathias Wullum Nielsen.

“Our results indicate that the power balance in the global scientific system is slowly shifting, and – in contrast to the growing inequality in citations – I see this as a healthy sign.”

Read the article ’Global citation inequality is on the rise’, published in the journal PNAS.