Social Science World Map

Here’s a world map that’s so distorted you might think you’re looking at the globe through a half-full wineglass.

What’s that skinny green stringbean hanging off the bottom of the fat blue ball of North America?

world of science

Unfair distribution and unequal impact: the World of Science. Image by Laura Czerniewicz

It’s Latin America – and that’s how the impact of the region’s published scientific papers compares to the rich countries, according to new research by Laura Czerniewicz, an associate professor with the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town.

Her research presents a view of the world according to academic impact, and not geographic footprint.

The graphic is a potent reminder that – just like winning medals in the Olympic Games – science is a business of long-term investment and a global power-game where the industrialised North has a huge head-start. That’s why purple Europe occupies so much space on the map. And where did Africa, India or Russia go?

And though countries like Brazil may now be investing 1% of GDP in research and development, the “flywheel” of national know-how may take years or decades to acquire sufficient momentum to build a knowledge-based society.

A fascinating scientific paper Czerniewicz published recently highlighted by a chilling “World of Science” map that shows the discrepancies between northern and southern hemisphere academic impact. This reflects the average 2.9% of GDP invested by OECD countries in research and development – and the less than 1% averaged by emerging economies.

The social science paper, originally published in the London School of Economics Impact Blog, is a potent reminder of the regional disparities visible in global research production as expressed through science journals’ publishing in the early 2000s.

The research – which focuses on social sciences – produces a number of conclusions:

Firstly, researchers in poorer countries may be encouraged by their state-funded universities to undertake research that, which it is of local relevance, has little international appeal in terms of publishing. This is just one of many dilemmas facing emerging countries researchers, who find themselves juggling scientific relevance with recognition.

Next, the map doesn’t just reflect who produces – but who consumes information as well. Although papers are produced by academics receiving state funding, commercial publishers only allow them to be seen by those in institutions able to pay. Writes Czerniewicz: “Knowledge outputs represented in the map above generally reside behind paywalls and can only be reached by people with access to expensive academic databases.” Open access will eventually change this – but not yet.

And though it might seem that way, scientific publishing multinationals don’t in fact own every channel for sharing research. There are other valid forms of outputs which also report research findings – though these generally enjoy less prestige and are unlikely to gratify an author’s ego. Concludes Czerniewicz: “the open access movement needs to broaden its focus from access to knowledge to full participation in knowledge creation and in scholarly communication.”

The map is a timely reminder to Brazil that, although the country’s scientists have have indeed come far in recent years, there’s along way to go before the academic impact footprint of Brazil matches its geographic footprint.

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