The latest ISI report identifies a new way to calculate and compare how well nations and institutions could respond to unforeseen challenges, based on the diverse spread of research areas in their portfolios
‘Diversity’ has long been a watchword in fields such as economics and ecology, and in recent years has gained prominence in the conversation around increased racial, ethnic and cultural representation across the public and commercial sectors.
Diversity also pertains to research – not only to researchers themselves but also to the balance of subject fields embraced by universities, research institutions and nations as a whole.
To demonstrate the relevance of subject diversity, we also investigate its role in the global research community’s response to an unforeseen crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our latest Global Research Report from the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI)™ at Clarivate examines this latter aspect, indexing levels of subject diversity over the last four decades, in selected samples representing institutions as well as nations. To demonstrate the relevance of subject diversity, we also investigate its role in the global research community’s response to an unforeseen crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The authors of this report turned to the Web of Science™ and its collection of indexed journals spanning more than a century, with curated, consistent treatment of publications representing a constant set of 250 subject areas. Our analysis focused on research indexed from 1981 to 2018.
Regarding definitions: although often (and erroneously) used interchangeably when referring to research, the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ should not be confused. As we write in the report: “Diversity is the co-occurrence of several distinct topics or disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is when those strands are brought together in innovative research that makes a new thread.”
This Global Research Report relies primarily on the alternate terms ‘balance’ and ‘evenness’ in referring to a diverse research portfolio reflecting many disciplines. This contrasts with programs that lean more toward specialization in comparatively fewer disciplines.
To control for the large differences in paper output between different subject areas, along with other complexities in such a large, multiyear sample of publications, we normalized the data against the Web of Science Core Collection™ as a sound global reference baseline for uniform comparison. We also used the Gini coefficient – initially developed in economics to convey income disparity – as a gauge to track the evenness in subject-matter output over the decades.
National trends in research evenness
Source: The Web of Science
A closer look at nations and universities
In examining selected nations, the report charts the diversity of subject fields for the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) as well as the BRICK nations (Brazil, Russia, India, Mainland China and South Korea).
Our findings include the observation that Germany and the United States have tended to display a more even balance of subject concentration over recent decades. Meanwhile, Mainland China and South Korea, for example, have moved from an initial footing of greater specialization toward increased balance.
At the institutional level, the report examines subject diversity as displayed by selected universities in the United Kingdom and Australia. Results suggest that Australian universities have cultivated greater diversity, while some large United Kingdom institutions have retained a lower balance of specialty areas.
For gauging the practical results of subject diversity in a real-life scenario, we found ourselves with an all-too-perfect example: the global COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps history’s greatest challenge to the research community in terms of necessitating prompt answers and solutions.
Creating a custom database based on COVID-related keywords, we parsed some 67,000 reports published during 2020 and 2021. The aim was to learn which countries responded with research of particular relevance to confronting the pandemic.
The results showed that countries with evenly balanced research portfolios – especially the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom – produced papers in the most comprehensive range of topics pertinent to COVID-19. Brazil, a country with a more specialized portfolio, was also able to publish a spectrum of relevant research because its specialisms were suited to the situation. South Korea and Mainland China are technology specialists with less diverse portfolios, which impacted the range of research they published in response to this crisis.
Learning lessons from a balanced research portfolio can guide institutions and nations alike in steering their future efforts – for normal planning and management as well as preparation against unforeseen circumstances.
With this finding, the report demonstrates that analysis of subject diversity goes beyond typical citation analysis, which generally looks backward at performance. Instead, learning lessons from a balanced research portfolio can guide institutions and nations alike in steering their future efforts – for normal planning and management as well as preparation against unforeseen circumstances. In all cases, the Web of Science provides navigation.