The slow decline of Japanese research in 5 charts

The country's research output is falling behind other dominant science nations.

23 March 2017

Nicky Phillips

Yury Zap / Alamy Stock Photo

Japan is one of the world’s top research-producing nations. But, over the past decade its scholarly output has not kept pace with the average growth in publications around the world. While the total number of articles in Scopus increased by about 80% between 2005 and 2015, Japan’s output grew by a mere 14%.


Japan's number of articles in Scopus increased slightly between 2005 and 2015, but its share of articles dropped over the past decade unlike its rivals, South Korea and China. Full size image

Japan’s global share declined by more than a third over the decade, while China experienced extraordinary growth. Anders Karlsson, vice president, academic relations at Elsevier, said although Japan had an excellent research pedigree, with 17 Nobel Prizes in the sciences awarded since 2000, the country’s declining population, meaning fewer researchers, and flat research investment were affecting its performance.

“Japan has declined in its global share and thus in global impact,” says Karlsson.

In the Nature Index, Japan's share of high-quality papers has also declined.

Nature Index

Japan's share of high-quality papers (AC) included in the Nature Index dropped between 2012 and 2016, as did the United State's share. China and the United Kingdom's articles grew over that time. Full size image

The significant rise in papers from countries such as China meant nations with a well-established research landscape were losing their share of global output, said David Pendlebury, an analyst with Clarivate Analytics.

“Japan is a special case, because in absolute terms, it’s not growing either,” said Pendlebury.

Web of Science

Overall, total articles in WoS remained fairly flat between 2005 and 2015. Full size image

Web of Science

Japan's number of articles, and share of global articles, in the Web of Science, by field in 2015. Full size image

Japan lagged behind the average global output in 13 of 14 fields, according to data from the WoS. Astronomy was the only field in which it outperformed the average.

Web of Science

While the number of publications indexed in the Web of Science has increased in all fields between 2005 and 2015, Japan has not kept pace with the rest of the world. In most fields Japan produced fewer articles in 2015 than in 2005. Full size image

In 11 fields, Japan published fewer articles in 2015 than in 2005, he said. In materials science and engineering, strong areas for Japan historically, its publications fell by more than 10%. The most acute declines were in biochemistry/molecular biology, computer science and, a traditionally strong area for Japan, immunology.

In only three fields, medicine, mathematics and astronomy, did Japan publish more papers in 2015 than in 2005.

Though the statistics are damning, Pendlebury acknowledges that Japan still has many world-class scientists.

Karlsson said the country has introduced some positive reforms, such as universities being more strategic, and national programs to facilitate knowledge transfer and recruit international researchers. But, he asked, “is the transformation radical enough?


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