Flattening of the U.S. Output of Scientific Articles: 1988–2003

U.S. Output Flattens, and NSF Wonders Why
Jeffrey Mervis

Science 3 August 2007:
Vol. 317. no. 5838, p. 582
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5838.582

A new study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) showing that the overall number of publications by U.S. scientists has remained flat for more than a decade calls to mind the opening words of a classic 1960s folk rock anthem: “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

The study (nsf07320) reveals what NSF officials call an “unprecedented” and mysterious trend: Despite the continued expansion of the peer-reviewed literature, the total output of U.S. scientists stopped growing in the early 1990s and hasn’t budged since then. The pattern, which cuts across all disciplines, reverses decades of steady expansion and leaves NSF officials scratching their heads for an explanation.

“We don’t have a smoking gun,” says Rolf Lehming, who oversees NSF’s biennial compendium of leading scientific and engineering indicators and has been tracking the phenomenon since the late 1990s. The trend is especially surprising given the growth in funding, personnel, and other research inputs over the 1988-2003 period being analyzed, he notes. It also deviates from the pattern in the European Union and in emerging Asian nations, where the output has continued to grow. As a result, their scientists can claim a rising share of global publications.

Read the complete article: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/317/5838/582

Citation of NSF Report:
National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2007. Changing U.S. Output of Scientific Articles: 1988–2003. NSF 07-320. Derek Hill, Alan I. Rapoport, Rolf F. Lehming, and Robert K. Bell. Arlington, VA.

Excerpt from the 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.