Exploring China’s research landscape and its future direction

Our latest Global Research Report from the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI)™ charts China’s research trajectory and its path of growth, quality and international collaboration.

Over the last 40 years China’s research economy has experienced remarkable transformation and growth. China has emerged as a leading science and technology power on the global stage, rivaling western nations including the U.S.

Our latest ISI report, China’s research landscape, draws on Web of Science™ data to reveal the trajectory and dynamics of China’s research landscape. It shows an acceleration in published research output, which increased five-fold between 2009 and 2021, well outpacing the U.S. and E.U. Our analysis suggests this trajectory is likely to continue. China’s research is also shifting towards more open and international engagement, with new areas of emerging interest and possible future expansion.

China’s research output – the quantity versus quality debate

A topic of continuing debate among commentators and policy analysts is the perception that China’s outstanding research productivity is not reflected in its quality. One of the contributing factors is the lag in recognition for China’s research in other parts of the world as reflected in citation indicators. Due to lagging recognition, China’s annual average Category Normalized Citation Impact (CNCI) initially appeared to decline.

However, by assessing the overall performance of China’s much-expanded research base across an Impact Profile, which intersperses the distribution of well-cited and less-cited papers with those of other countries/regions, we can see that its research is increasingly valued beyond its borders. Although China still has relatively more papers in impact categories below world average, it is now publishing as great a proportion of its research as the U.S. and Germany in most CNCI categories above world average.

Other indicators that China’s research output is diversifying and deepening include:

  • In several research areas, China now contributes as many or more Highly Cited Papers™ as the U.S. and other G7 nations with mature scientific and scholarly research systems.
  • 201 unique Chinese institutions were identified as primary affiliations by Highly Cited Researchers™ in 2022 compared to 115 in 2018. Highly Cited Researchers are the small fraction of global scientists and social scientists that have demonstrated significant influence in their field(s) of research.
  • In the Highly Cited Researchers Cross-Field category, Highly Cited Researchers awards to Chinese researchers numbered 224 in 2018 and 710 in 2022. China’s world share of Cross-Field Highly Cited Researchers increased from 11.1% in 2018 to 21.9% in 2022. The Cross-Field category recognizes the interdisciplinary nature of modern research captures researchers whose contribution of Highly Cited Papers spans multiple fields, equivalent to exceptional performance in any one field.

Charting collaboration patterns and new areas of research interest

In our previous report, U.S. research trends: The impact of globalization and collaboration, we noted that international research collaboration is a notable trend in the U.S. research landscape. U.S. research collaboration accounts for over 50% of output in most science/engineering areas and includes a diverse network of partners.

Our analysis reveals that China’s collaboration focus remains largely domestic, with the proportion of journal articles produced without any international collaborative partners fluctuating between 70% and 80%, making it the most internally focused region while others have increasingly shifted towards collaboration.

Nevertheless, China’s collaboration network is expanding and our findings reveal:

  • China collaborated on research with 191 sovereign states* in 2022, up from 164 in 2018. Newer collaborations generally involved developing countries/regions characterized by smaller researcher populations, lower GDPs or relatively modest R&D expenditure.
  • The U.S. is China’s most frequent international research partner, contributing as a co-author on over 40% of China’s collaborative output over the past decade. This surpasses that of other key partners (the U.K. ~12% and Australia ~10%).
  • Only two other nations increased their share of China’s international collaborations by more than two percentage points over the decade: Pakistan (share growth from 0.8% to 4.4%) and Saudi Arabia (from 0.8% to 2.8%).

A question of wide interest is where China’s research is concentrated and the direction it is headed. Through Research Fronts™, which involve clustering recently published, Highly Cited Papers based on the even more recent papers that cite them, we can begin to understand the hot topics in China’s research focus beyond broad subject categories and build a granular view. Some noteworthy trends emerge.

In China, the Research Fronts driven by core Highly Cited Papers are primarily focused on Chemistry and Engineering & Materials Science and in Electrical Engineering, Electronics & Computer Science. However, for papers that co-cite these core papers (indicating how innovative knowledge is being applied), China has markedly more activity in Clinical & Life Sciences, hinting to China’s future direction and growth in this field.

Research Fronts also help us to shed light on the diverse ways in which Deep Learning is being studied or applied in China. We use them to identify the leading Micro Citation Topics for China’s research: Supercapacitors, Deep Learning and Long non-coding RNA. Indeed, many of China’s leading Computer Science Research Fronts relate to technologies involving image recognition for various applications including tracking individual objects, vegetation detection (NDVI) and drones.

The impact of China’s emerging capacity and likely excellence in its Research Fronts will be of profound significance for and benefit to many research advancements globally.

The future of China’s research landscape

Since our last Global Research Report on China published in 2009, the research landscape today looks markedly different, with the emergence of China as a leading global science and technology power. The China phenomenon will assume an ever-greater role in research policy worldwide as China continues to reshape the global research landscape.


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*The United Nations comprises 193 sovereign states.