The number of scholars who declare affiliations in both China and the United States on research papers has dropped by more than 20% over the past 3 years, an analysis conducted for Nature has found. That slump seems to be part of a pattern of waning US–China collaboration that is starting to show up in research databases. The number of papers that were collaborations between authors in the United States and China — the world’s two largest research producers — also fell for the first time last year.
These signs of falling collaboration are at least in part a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars say, but also of political tensions. These include the effects of the United States’ controversial China Initiative, a policy supposed to prevent espionage that targeted many US academics for not disclosing some of their work or funding in China. “We’re starting to see the damaging consequence that results from a combination of restricted mobility and heightened politicization,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “Having dual affiliation was once seen as a badge of honour, but is now tinted by the concern of scientific espionage,” she says.
The US government seems to be dropping its decades-long support for scientific collaboration with China just as some of China’s research is at a world-class level, says Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “If the United States stops collaborating with China, we’re cutting off our access to a huge part of what’s going on in the scientific world,” she says.
The analysis of dual affiliations was conducted for Nature by Jeroen Baas, director of analytics at the Amsterdam-based publisher Elsevier. Baas looked at the authors of millions of papers in Elsevier’s Scopus database, and found that the number of authors who reported a dual US–China affiliation on at least one publication in a year had risen to more than 15,000 by 2018, but had dropped to below 12,500 by 2021 (see ‘Dual affiliations’). This fall was more sustained than for other pairs of nations, Baas found, and it occurred even as the global number of authors disclosing multiple affiliations continued to rise.
The pattern might help to explain how publications with co-authors from China and the United States also fell in 2021, the Scopus figures show, even as total US and Chinese outputs are both increasing. Baas’s analysis suggests that there has been a much sharper fall among the subset of these publications that have dual-affiliated authors (see ‘US–China collaboration’).
In February, Caroline Wagner at the Ohio State University in Columbus and Xiaojing Cai at Yangzhou University in China used data from the Web of Science to show that US–China co-authored papers were falling as a share of world publications, whereas papers with co-authors from China and the European Union were not. They also published a table suggesting that the number of papers with dual-affiliated US–China authors has had a sharper fall1.