The scientific impact of China

Scientometrics 63(2), 2005 (forthcoming)


In reaction to a recent paper in Nature by Sir David A. King entitled “The scientific impact of nations”,1 it has been argued that the analysis of critical technologies reveals a very different order among these nations. On a number of indicators China, for example, has recently surpassed the United States in the critical field of nanotechnology.2 The increasing contribution of China can also be made visible using the data published in Table 1 of the paper in Nature. While the analysis focused in this study on comparisons among nations along the columns (in order to establish a world ranking), the same data allows for comparing the dynamics at the level of nations by normalizing along the rows.


Visual inspection of the data for China—ranked in the 20th row of the previous paper —teaches us that this country’s contribution in terms of numbers of publications almost doubled during the four year period under study. However, China’s contribution to the international scientific literature has continued to grow exponentially since then. While we have witnessed sustained growth in scientific participation before (for example, in the case of Spain and Italy), these increases have hitherto always been linear.3


It has been argued that China has remained behind in terms of the impact of its publications in terms of citations.4 By plotting the percentage shares of the 1% most highly cited publications in terms of the increases for each of the countries listed in the aforementioned table, one can obtain Figure 1. This figure shows an order completely different in terms of the ranking. While India, Ireland, South Africa, and Singapore are English-speaking nations, Chinese and South-Korean publications outperform the rest of the world in terms of accessing the top layer of the 1% highly cited publications. The continued increase of the impact from Swiss papers is also to be noted.



Further analysis of the data reveals that China is not only outperforming in terms of publications and highly cited publications, but also the percentage world share of normal citations has grown substantially during the period under discussion (from 0.95% to 1.56%). Although citations are a lagging indicator, the growing impact was thus already visible in the period 1997-2001. The crucial question remains how long the exponential growth of this country’s volume of participation will be sustainable.


Loet Leydesdorff

University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR),

Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX  Amsterdam, The Netherlands;




1. King, D. A. The Scientific impact of nations. Nature 430 (2004) 311-316.

2. Kostoff, R. The (scientific) wealth of mations, The Scientist 18 (2004) 10.

3. Leydesdorff, L. Is the European Union becoming a single publication system? Scientometrics 47 (2000) 265-280.

4. Jin, B., & Rousseau R. Evaluation of research performance and scientometric indicators in China. In H. F. Moed, W. Glänzel & U. Schmoch (Eds.), Handbook of Quantitative Science and Technology Research (pp. 497-514). Dordrecht, etc.: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.