Do countries specialise in particular research areas?

I had wanted to write a paper with Axele Giroud ever since we worked together at the University of Bradford, where I spent four very interesting years between 1997 and 2001. Axele stayed a lot longer before moving to Manchester, where she is now a Professor of International Business. In 2013 we finally managed to join forces with a paper in which we applied an influential framework from international business and economics - Michael Porter’s Diamond of National Competitive Advantage - to academia.

Country comparative advantage in specific disciplines

We apply theories of revealed comparative advantage and the competitive advantage of nations to academic disciplines and present an academic diamond that details factors likely to explain a country’s research profile and competitiveness in certain disciplines. To assess a country’s comparative advantage in a particular discipline, we compared the number of papers in the Web of Science for a particular country in a particular discipline with the total number of papers in that discipline for the 34 countries included in the analysis. It thus refers to the share of a country’s papers in a given field relative to the share of world papers in that field. We subtracted 1 from the resulting value, so that values above zero reflect a comparative advantage and values below zero a comparative disadvantage.

Five major disciplinary clusters

In order to simplify the analysis, we grouped our 21 sub-disciplines in the Web of Science data into five major discipline clusters.

  • Social Sciences: Social Sciences, Psychiatry & Psychology, Economics & Business
  • Physical Sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Space Science
  • Engineering Sciences: Engineering, Computer Sciences, Materials Science
  • Environmental Sciences: Environment & Ecology, Geosciences, Plant & Animal Sciences, Agricultural Sciences
  • Biomedical Sciences: Clinical Medicine, Immunology, Molecular Biology, Neuro­science, Biology & Biochemistry, Microbiology, Pharmacology & Toxicology.

Hierarchical cluster analysis reveals seven different groups of countries

We then used a hierarchical cluster analysis to identify groups of countries with similar RCAs (see Table). Using Porter’s diamond, we argued that key determinants explain country groupings and specialisation.

Country specialisation across disciplines

Group 1 has RCA in the Social Sciences. A highly developed knowledge infrastructure (factor condition), first-mover advantage with long-established institutions (strategy and rivalry), sophisticated demand (demand condition) and related industries (such as publishing) are useful in explaining why countries fall in this group. Group 2 comprises countries with RCA in the Physical Sciences, but a relatively balanced research profile overall. In this case, socio-political factors, historical patterns and strong institutional conditions are key explanations. Group 3 presents a balanced research profile with no strong RCA, and is illustrative of high-income economies with advanced specialized factors.

Group 4 comprises Asian countries with RCA in the Engineering Sciences. This research profile is explained by high capital resources (factor conditions), universities’ goals, rules and incentives (strategy and rivalry), as well as economic development objectives and government support. Group 5 is composed of the two neighbouring countries, Russia and Ukraine, with very high RCA in Physical Sciences and moderate RCA in the Engineering Sciences. Socio-political factors, historical patterns and strong institutional conditions are key explanations. Group 6a and 6b demonstrate high RCA in the Environmental Sciences. Countries within this group benefit from strong natural basic resources, linked to high related demand from local industry.

It is noticeable in our sample that high-income economies tend to present a balanced research profile, explained by the presence of advanced specialized factors, as well as strong institutional environment. Newly developed or emerging economies show strong RCA in Engineering Sciences (which was historically based upon economic development strategies) or Environmental Sciences (linked to existing natural resources), whilst transition economies can be found to have strong RCA in Physical Sciences.


Combining existing knowledge with the results of this present study, we propose an academic diamond (see Figure).

We showed that whilst all four quadrants of the diamond provide explanations behind strength in scientific outputs overall, specific factors vary in the explanation of the scientific advantage of nations, and the role of government is important in a number of cases, although through different means and actions.

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A free pre-publication version of this paper is hyperlinked. If you’d like to have an official reprint, just drop me an email.

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