Photo: Ian Alexander Martin
A UNU International Institute for Software Technology study elucidates promising areas for research cooperation between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and examines the structure of the ASEAN research landscape.
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In the last two decades, hand-in-hand with strong economic growth, Southeast Asia has experienced a strengthened academic community as well as an increase in public and private research and development. But, because the level of research activity and maturity of the research environment in Southeast Asian countries is varied and has been changing rapidly in recent years, public perceptions of the amount and relevance of the research output can often be inaccurate. This gives particular emphasis to the need for data to support decisions concerning collaborative research programmes.
As part of the SEA-EU-NET project, funded via the European Union (EU) Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) — a funding tool through which the EU supports scientific research and development activities — we undertook two complementary types of analyses to address this need. The objective of our study was to identify promising research areas for collaboration between the member and associated member states of the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as to elucidate the structure of the ASEAN research landscape.
First, we conducted bibliometric analyses (quantitative analyses of scientific and technological literature) to investigate the features and trends in the research activities of ASEAN countries in seven of the ten thematic areas of the FP7. Second, in order to gain insight into the dimensions, patterns and trends of cooperation between the two regions (targeted within the SEA-EU-NET project), the analysis of Southeast Asian research strengths was complemented by an assessment of scientific co-publications between ASEAN and EU countries. By retrieving data on scientific publications that had at least one author from ASEAN and one from the EU, we were able to draw conclusions on the output of bi-regional collaborative research.
Our study covers keywords from within FP7 thematic areas touching on nanotechnology; energy; health; food, agriculture and biotechnology; environment; information and communication technology (ICT); and industrial technology.
For the thematic areas of energy and environment, which are aligned with well-established disciplines, the Scopus All Science Journal Classification journal mapping was used to procure relevant publications. For interdisciplinary areas like nanotechnology and for areas where there is a particular sub-area of the discipline to be emphasized — like ICT; industrial technology; food, agriculture and biotechnology; and health — a keyword-based approach was used. Lists of keywords were vetted by the relevant SEA-EU-NET National Contact Points. We then procured bibliographic data for the thematic areas that contained these vetted keywords in their titles, abstracts or author-defined keywords.
In terms of publication and citation volume, ASEAN is strongest relative to the EU in nanotechnology, with a publication output of 9.0% of that of the EU, and a citation count of 6.4% of that of the EU. ASEAN is also relatively strong in relation to the EU in the areas of ICT (6.7% for publications and 7.7% for citations), industrial technology (7.6% for publications and 7.6% for citations) and energy (6.3% for publications and 5.2% for citations). A clear drop can then be seen in the contribution to the other three areas.
Figure 1, which shows the number of co-publications between ASEAN countries and major world regions for the period 2004–2008, indicates that for ASEAN countries, the EU is an important partner in terms of co-publications.
Figure 2, however, shows that Salton’s measure (which considers publication volumes of both sides to analyse the collaboration strength between the two regions) results in a different ranking than the one generated using the absolute number of co-publications.
Take Thailand and Singapore, for instance. While the USA is the most important co-publication partner in absolute numbers, using Salton’s measure the collaboration strength of Thailand with Japan is higher than that of Thailand with the USA. The same pattern holds for the China–USA and China–Singapore linkages.
The highest collaborative strength between the EU and ASEAN is in the thematic area of environment (0.056), followed by energy (0.018) and food, agriculture and biotechnology (0.018), with nanotechnology only a minor step behind (0.015).
However, the most remarkable fact is that in the EU, the share of EU-ASEAN co-publications to total publications is much lower than in the ASEAN countries. This difference is especially striking in the area of environment (17.6% in relation to ASEAN publications versus just 0.7% in relation to EU publications), food, agriculture and biotechnology (8.3% in relation to ASEAN publications versus just 0.4% in relation to EU publications) and health (7.6% in relation to ASEAN publications versus just 0.2% in relation to EU publications).
From an EU perspective, the ASEAN region seems to still be a minor co-publication partner, while for ASEAN, Europe is among the most important partners. (Large parts of these differences, however, simply reflect the fact that the overall and per capita publication output in Europe is higher.)
One additional aspect possibly explaining parts of these differences, which should be taken into account, is that there are many more European scientific journals than Southeast Asian ones, and a larger share of European academic journals are indexed compared to Southeast Asian journals. Thus, when European authors publish in European journals, this is usually indexed in Scopus (which increases the overall publication output and decreases the share of EU-ASEAN co-publications). But when Southeast Asian authors publish in local or regional Southeast Asian journals (or publish in, for instance, Chinese or Japanese journals), this is not necessarily the case.
Based on our investigation and the analyses we conducted at various levels, we reached several conclusions.
First is that ASEAN research output, relative to that of the EU, shows fewer relative citations than relative publications in all selected FP7 thematic areas. ASEAN countries’ contributions to overall EU publications and citations are marginal.
Also, we determined that while the EU is the most important co-publication partner for countries like Viet Nam, Malaysia and Indonesia, this is not the case for Thailand and Singapore. Nevertheless, Thailand is the most important ASEAN member co-publication partner for the EU in the areas of health; environment; energy; and food, agriculture and biotechnology.
Other inferences of note include that nanotechnology can be one thematic area in which the EU could develop collaboration with ASEAN. However, if the EU were to looking for a broader base area, with research strengths distributed among ASEAN members, then nanotechnology is not a suitable thematic area, because Singapore alone shows concentrated research strengths in this area. This matches the co-publication findings, as Singapore’s importance in scientific cooperation is quite evident.
Another conclusion is that energy has been an increasingly active area for cooperative research in recent years and can be one interesting thematic area in which the EU could collaborate with ASEAN in the future. Nanyang Technological University and the University of Singapore can be potential collaborators, followed by King Mongkuts University of Technology Thonburi (Thailand), and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
In the environment and the food, agriculture, and biotechnology thematic areas, Thailand is a potential collaborator, but research strengths are distributed among Thai universities, with no single university showing significant research strengths. Thailand may wish to find a way to knit together its research strengths in these thematic areas to collaborate even more with the EU. Furthermore, the EU is a very important research partner in environment for Indonesia, as a remarkable share of the national publications in this field has been co-authored by EU scientists (42% in the period 2004–2008).
In the area of health, the situation is rather different in Thailand. Mahidol University shows a high concentration of research strengths in the region and can be a potential university with which the EU could collaborate. So far, cooperation with the EU shows similar patterns and trends as the comparison of national publications.
Overall, this study helps to clarify the research landscape of Southeast Asia and provides insights into cooperative research outputs with European Union countries. In order to conduct bibliometric analyses related to FP7 thematic areas, the approach of collecting expert-vetted sets of keywords appears to be very useful.
This approach is flexible and can be used to conduct such analysis for any niche research area specific to research funding projects and funding priorities. Similar analyses might, for instance, be performed for the priority areas outlined by the ASEAN Plan of Action on Science and Technology (APAST). It is also useful in that current research trends can be taken into account at an earlier stage than would be possible when using journal lists.