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Brazilian scientific output suffers decline

Databases show that the number of articles published by scientists in Brazil fell for the first time since 1996

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Brazilian research output took a downturn for the first time in 2022, according to data from the two leading abstract and citation databases: Scopus from Elsevier and Web of Science (WoS) from Clarivate Analytics. According to a report released in late July by Elsevier and Agência BORI, Brazilian authors published 74,500 research papers in 2022, a 7.5% reduction from 80,500 publications the previous year. Only wartime Ukraine recorded as steep a decline in the year. Between 1996 and 2021, Brazil’s science publishing had been steadily increasing, although the pace had slowed at the onset of the pandemic. The report shows that 23 countries similarly saw a drop in papers published in 2022, including the UK, the US, and Germany, while 28 countries expanded their research output, among them China, India, and Pakistan.

The WoS database paints an even bleaker picture for Brazil, with only 61,200 articles published by Brazilian authors in 2022, down from 72,900 in 2021, a significant 16.1% reduction. This decrease is higher than the 14% reduction reported for the UK, the US, and Russia, but slightly lower than Argentina’s 16.4% decline. As a result, Brazil’s global share of articles fell from 2.78% to 2.46%, returning to the levels last observed in 2014. The data from the two databases differ because they each compile a different set of indexed journals — Scopus is slightly broader and typically captures more publications from Brazil than WoS.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Given that the decline has affected multiple countries, the most likely explanation is the pandemic, which hit the Brazilian scientific community harder than others. “We believe the most likely hypothesis is that the decline from 2021 to 2022 was an aftereffect from the pandemic, which led to budget cuts, the unavailability of laboratory resources and supplies, lockdowns, and travel restrictions,” wrote Dante Cid, vice president of academic relations for Elsevier in Latin America, in an email. A previous Elsevier report during the pandemic had found that female researchers were more significantly impacted than their male counterparts during lockdowns due to their multiple roles, including caregiving. “However, the pandemic ultimately affected researchers across the board, leading to the decline described in the report,” Cid added. The Elsevier report, titled “2022: Um ano de queda na produção científica para 23 países, inclusive o Brasil” (“2022 saw declining research productivity in 23 countries, including Brazil”) analyzed data from the 51 countries that published more than 10,000 papers in 2021.

The reduction in some fields was greater than in others. According to the Scopus database, the number of papers in agricultural sciences fell by 13.7% between 2021 and 2022 — the largest proportional decline among all fields —dropping from 14,243 to 12,289 articles. The report also examined the number of publications from Brazilian universities and research centers that had more than 1,000 papers published in 2021. Publication output contracted at all 35 institutions except the Federal University of Santa Maria. Estêvão Gamba, a data scientist at Agência BORI, notes that 29 of the universities with declining research output were federal institutions, with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE) being the most severely affected. “Both of these institutions are largely engaged in research in agricultural sciences, the field hardest hit in Brazil,” he says. The report used the SciVal analytical tool to query the Scopus database, which contains around 85 million citations and abstracts of papers published by over 7,000 publishers worldwide.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

In absolute figures, the most significant reduction was in the natural sciences, with the number of articles dropping from 44,616 in 2021 to 40,964 last year. The social sciences were the least affected, with 12,947 publications in 2021 and 12,839 in 2022. Renato Pedrosa, a FAPESP consultant on science, technology, and innovation indicators, and a researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP), sees a link between the decline in research output and the reduction in doctoral degrees during the pandemic. Approximately 20,000 PhDs were awarded in Brazil each year in 2020 and 2021, compared to 24,400 in 2019 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 315). “Fewer doctoral graduates meant that fewer theses and papers were published in 2020 and 2021, a reduction that only became evident in data for 2022,” he says.

The fields with the most significant contraction in degrees awarded, such as life sciences and agricultural sciences, also saw the most substantial declines in scholarly publishing. “These were the fields that suffered the most from laboratory closures and the suspension of field research for over a year during the pandemic,” explains Pedrosa, who recently surveyed the Web of Science database to assess the downturn in papers published in the state of São Paulo (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 330), which dropped from 30,600 in 2021 to 25,100 in 2022. In agricultural sciences the reduction was 23.9%, compared to an average of 18% in other fields.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Interestingly, the onset of the pandemic had a positive impact on research activity, at least initially. Brazilian journals published 21,223, 22,312, 22,268, and 21,204 papers, respectively, from 2019 to 2022, notes Abel Packer, who heads the SciELO Brazil library, a collection of nearly 300 Brazilian open-access journals. “In other words, publishing increased by 5% in 2020, was flat in 2021, then declined by 5% in 2022, contracting to the same level as in 2019.” he says. Manuscript submissions increased from 90,000 to 110,000 in 2020, at the height of the lockdowns. Many researchers, unable to conduct fieldwork and having more time on their hands to write papers, chose to review the data they had collected before the pandemic and published analyses based on that data. “However, submissions subsequently decreased in comparison to 2020, reaching 92,500 in 2021 and 78,000 in 2022, and this is reflected in the 2022 figures and will likely affect 2023 as well,” Packer predicts.

Renato Pedrosa believes Brazil will see a very gradual recovery. “Brazilian research activity was flat last year, while other countries have experienced a faster recovery. In addition, Brazil’s accumulated losses over the past two years are greater than those of most countries.” According to the Elsevier report, other nations are showing increasing research momentum. For example, India had more than 177,000 articles published in 2022, a 19% improvement on the previous year. As a result, it overtook the UK to become the world’s third largest science publisher, behind only China and the US.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and China each saw research output growth exceeding 20% between 2001 and 2022. Pedrosa believes Brazil, which currently ranks 14th globally for articles published, is at risk of losing ground in future rankings.

The Elsevier report was presented during the 75th Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, held in July in Curitiba, offering inputs into discussions on the future of Brazilian science and the financial challenges that the scientific community has faced in recent years. Helena Nader, chairwoman of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, told Brazilian newspaper O Globo: “This is a predicament that goes back at least eight years, but was significantly exacerbated during the previous administration and then further compounded by the pandemic. The diminishing interest in undergraduate and graduate education is another serious concern. Reversing this trend will require effective communication and concerted efforts to attract students back.”

China’s scientific prowess
The Asian science powerhouse is also outperforming rivals in quality

According to the Elsevier report — based on data compiled from the Scopus database — the number of Chinese-published papers surged by over 20% between 2021 and 2022, while US research articles fell 1.6% over the same period. China’s post-pandemic performance has intensified the rivalry between the world’s two major powers and should further extend the country’s lead after it overtook its geopolitical rival by number of papers published in 2019. China’s research prowess is also reflected in its quality metrics. Last year, a report from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Japan, based on data from Clarivate Analytics, showed that Chinese researchers produced 27.2% of the top 1% most-cited articles globally from 2018 to 2020, with US researchers lagging at 24.9%. Out of the 10% most cited articles, China claimed a share of 26.6% of publications, while the US accounted for 21.1%.

In June last year, the Nature Index database released updated data on the most prolific countries and institutions in high-quality science. For the first time, China surpassed the US in the natural sciences — which includes the physical sciences, chemistry, Earth and environmental sciences, and biological sciences. China had a share score of 19,300 in the Nature Index, based on papers published in 82 highly influential journals, while the US had a score of 17,600. In health sciences, however, the US remains the undisputed leader with a score four times higher than China’s. “China has been trying to increase its international publications, and has particularly targeted the top-ranked journals,” said Xin Xu, a higher-education researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, in an interview with Nature. Reflecting this, China’s share in the multidisciplinary journals Nature and Science rose by 26% from 2021 to 2022, she added.