22:00 28 March 2011 by Andy Coghlan
Which country's scientific output rose 18-fold between 1996 and 2008, from 736 published papers to 13,238? The answer – Iran – might surprise many people, especially in the western nations used to leading science. Iran has the fastest rate of increase in scientific publication in the world.
And if political relations between Iran and the US are strained, it seems that the two countries' scientists are getting on fine: the number of collaborative papers between them rose almost fivefold from 388 to 1831 over the same period.
A rapid rise in Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian science stands out from a report published this week by the UK's Royal Society, comparing global publication and citation rates between 1993 and 2003 with those between 2004 and 2008. Like Iran, other, smaller players are also stepping up their research activity. Turkey, for example, quadrupled its output between 1996 and 2008, after increasing sixfold its funding for R&D. Similar trends emerged in Tunisia, Singapore and Qatar.
On the broader scientific stage, the established leaders in the US, Europe and Japan still dominate, but their ascendency is being eroded by rapidly industrialising countries. So while the proportion of papers with US authors has slipped from 26 to 21 per cent, China has risen from sixth to second place with 10.2 per cent of the authored papers, up from 4.4 per cent in 1996. India and Brazil are rising rapidly too.
"The leading nations are not getting weaker," says Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the panel that produced the study. "Rather, I would say we're seeing a rise in other nations into the big league," he says.
Marking the growth of science as a global enterprise to solve global problems, Llewellyn Smith says that collaborative papers have risen from a quarter to more than a third of all papers published. "To solve a global problem, you need data from all round the world, and this helps to unify the scientific voice geographically," he says. "So I think we can all benefit from this, to solve global problems."