Published corporate research ‘more reliant’ on academics

Data suggest research articles from commercial firms took a tumble in 2020 as academia boosted its output  

June 17, 2021
Source: iStock

Companies now rely on academic collaborations for almost three-quarters of the research they publish after a downturn in firms publishing papers during the pandemic, new data suggest.

An analysis of data in Elsevier’s Scopus database of research publications for Times Higher Education shows articles with at least one author from the corporate sector fell by 7 per cent in 2020 to about 126,000, a level not seen since 2011.

Among some of the bigger research nations, France saw one of the biggest drops, with firms publishing 14 per cent fewer papers last year, while the Netherlands (down 13 per cent), Japan (12 per cent), UK and US (both 11 per cent) also saw large falls. China continued to increase its corporate publications (up 5 per cent), although at a slower rate than before the pandemic.

Collaborative papers involving authors from both firms and academia also fell in 2020, but to a smaller extent than overall corporate publishing, leading to such joint-authored research now making up around 73 per cent of all corporate research.

M’hamed el Aisati, Elsevier’s vice-president for research analytics and data services, said that the data indicated that the corporate sector seemed “to be relying more and more on academic collaboration to publish scientific papers”.

However, at the same time – due to the unabated increase in academic publications even during the pandemic – a smaller share of academia’s papers involved collaboration with firms, he added.

According to the 2020 data, which are now almost complete, just 3 per cent of all research with an academic author also had a commercial co-author, down from 3.7 per cent a decade before.

Russell Thomson, an associate professor in innovation at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, said firm-level innovation was often “pro-cyclical, so the uncertainty and disruption last year might well be expected to lead to a fall in overall corporate publishing”.

However, he said that the key trend to watch was whether collaborative research between academia and firms had been impacted to the same degree.

Fariba Soetan, policy lead for research and innovation at the UK’s National Centre for Universities and Business, said research it had carried out alongside the University of Cambridge showed the impact of the pandemic on firms’ research activity had varied considerably by sector.

“The biggest declines in business activities with universities were observed in sectors such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing, the creative industries and media, and with non-biotechnology scientific and technical services,” she said.

On the other hand, collaborations involving pharmaceutical manufacturing and the medical biotechnology sector, as well as areas such as human health and social work, had seen an increase, Ms Soetan said.

She added that the research also showed that businesses “expect that their internal R&D is likely to recover faster than their R&D collaboration spend with different partners”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Compared to the 1980s when I was a PhD student, very few companies do what I would describe as research. Thus, there are not many opportunities to carry out interesting work except in academia. Thus one takes on the teaching and administration (plus poor pay rises) as small prices for the freedom given by the job. Companies can then carry out contract research without the risk of taking on a full-time employee. Makes sense for them and I do not blame them since businesses are there to make money. However, it does not always work for universities that often contain naive idealists without industry experience.