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National Science Foundation National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
Changing U.S. Output of Scientific Articles: 1988-2003

Executive Summary


In an unexpected development in the early 1990s, the absolute number of science and engineering (S&E) articles published by U.S.-based authors in the world's major peer-reviewed journals plateaued. This was a change from a rise in the number of publications over at least the two preceding decades. With some variation, this trend occurred across different categories of institutions, different institutional sectors, and different fields of research. It occurred despite continued increases in resource inputs, such as funds and personnel, that support research and development (R&D).

In other developed countries—a group of 15 members of the European Union (the EU-15) and Japan—the absolute number of articles continued to grow throughout most of the 1992–2003 period. During the mid- to late 1990s, the number of articles published by EU scientists surpassed those published by their U.S. counterparts, and the difference between Japanese and U.S. article output narrowed. Late in the period, growth in the number of articles produced in some of these developed countries showed signs of slowing.

The trend in number of S&E articles produced in four developing East Asian economies (the East Asia-4) was markedly different. This group exhibited strong growth in the number of articles, number of influential articles, and percentage of overall output classified as influential. Nonetheless, because the East Asia-4 began the period with a much less mature S&E research establishment than the three S&E publishing centers named above, it continued to lag behind them on the measures examined.

The unprecedented plateau in the number of U.S. S&E articles should not be confused with a decades-long and familiar decline in the U.S. share of the world's S&E articles. As other states built up their S&E capabilities, the U.S. share of the world's articles in natural sciences and engineering dropped from 38% in 1973 to 28% in 2003. This decline in share is not surprising, nor has it been viewed as a cause for concern. By many measures, including articles published in peer-reviewed journals, the United States has been the world's leading scientific nation for decades and remains the world's leading scientific nation.

On the whole, the U.S. share of the world's S&E articles remained relatively more robust in biomedical fields than in the physical sciences and engineering, where share declines tended to be greatest and output statistics tended to lag. In fields where U.S. shares of world article output dropped least, the United States was increasing its rate of international collaboration relatively quickly and thus was increasingly sharing credit with other countries.

Although the U.S. share of the world's influential articles dropped substantially, the United States remained dominant in this area. At the end of the period studied, U.S. institutions were at least partially responsible for half of the world's influential articles; no other major publishing center approached this figure. Moreover, compared with other major publishing centers, a considerably higher percentage of total U.S. output was classified as influential.

The U.S. academic sector, which dominates U.S. article production, largely mirrored the overall U.S. trends, although its growth in article output over the entire period compared favorably with that of other sectors. The most prestigious academic institutions, however, experienced relatively slow output growth. The increase in collaboration across national, institutional, and sectoral boundaries, which is most fully documented in academic sector data, was perhaps the most striking trend in S&E research and publication during this period.

Changing U.S. Output of Scientific Articles: 1988-2003
Special Report | NSF 07-320 | July 2007