US-China scientists strengthen ties in coronavirus research

China displaces the US as the dominant player.

11 June 2020

Gemma Conroy

klenger/Getty Images

Research on the pandemic has so far proven immune to the malaise in United States-China relations.

The two countries’ research relationship on coronavirus has intensified since the outbreak. Each is producing more COVID-19 research with the other than with any other nation, according to an analysis of more than 10,000 papers and preprints.

Articles co-authored by Chinese and US authors make up 3.3% of the global share of coronavirus articles published in the four months from January to April 2020, making them the dominant pair in coronavirus research, up from 2.5% in the pre-COVID-19 period.

But China has replaced the US as the core player in the field’s international collaboration networks since the outbreak began.

Close-knit teams favoured

Led by Caroline Fry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, the analysis found that US-China scientists are prioritizing speed over building diverse global teams, opting to work with familiar colleagues and smaller groups on COVID-19 research.

While keeping things close-knit makes it easier to produce findings at a breakneck pace, it leaves little room for other nations to participate, particularly developing countries, the authors say. Economic hurdles, budget cuts, and access to samples could be driving the shift away from internationally diverse teams, says Fry.

The task of building cross-border partnerships may also be too time-consuming during the rapidly evolving health crisis.

“Communication across borders is challenging at the best of times,” says Fry. “Scientists need to get their results out, so it makes sense that they would go to who they know.”

China strengthens its global ties

With her colleagues, Fry analysed 10,432 journal articles and preprints on coronaviruses published between January 2018 and April 2020 to compare collaboration patterns before and after the COVID-19 outbreak. The findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, were uploaded as a preprint to SSRN.

Between January and April 2020, Chinese researchers produced 1,671 papers and preprints on COVID-19, which is more than they had published on coronaviruses in the preceding 24 months.

Before the outbreak, China produced 22% of total global articles on coronaviruses. Since the outbreak, between January and April 2020, the proportion has risen to 39%, making China the biggest contributor to COVID-19 research.

The US’s share of coronavirus articles, by contrast, has declined, from 35% in the two years before the outbreak to 28% in the first 4 months of 2020.

“It is clear that China takes the lead on research publications in the COVID-19 period,” the authors wrote.

Chinese researchers have also strengthened their global links on coronavirus research. Before the outbreak, only 18% of their coronavirus articles were internationally co-authored papers. Since the outbreak, this has risen to 38%.

The share of US coronavirus articles that are internationally co-authored has dropped slightly, from 44% in the two years before the outbreak to 40% in the four months from January 2020.

The new normal?

While US-China researchers are strengthening their partnership, they are working less frequently with other countries, though the United Kingdom remains a strong partner.

The authors also found a drop in the average number of authors for published articles, but not for preprints.

The shift in collaboration patterns could be due to researchers changing their focus from exploratory research to applied science, such as developing a vaccine, says Michaël Bikard, a management science researcher at the European Institute of Business Administration in France.

The urgency of the crisis has also increased demand for researchers with coronavirus expertise, crowding out those from other fields, he says.

“It doesn’t always make sense to collaborate with lots of different people,” says Bikard, who was not involved in the study. “The scientific community has a very important goal to find a cure or a vaccine. Speed is of the essence, so it’s not alarming that they’re collaborating less.”

Lianghao Dai, a sociologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, says that it’s important to evaluate “the extent of the disruption and how the pandemic will evolve into a new normality” before drawing conclusions on how it will affect international collaborations in the long run.

Dai, who was not involved in the study, adds that disciplinary differences should also be taken into account, as lockdown measures are likely impacting some fields more than others.

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