I was taking a look at Scimago Journal & Country Rank.

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Is there any specific reason why UK produces way more research paper than that of Germany and Japan?

Note. kindly, don't bring up futile arguments like population doesn't really matter in case of research paper publication (e.g. India), etc.

  • 13
    For starters, check out which journals are indexed in this, and in which language they publish. (Also, the UK's population is hardly "much smaller" than Germany...65M vs 82M)
    – user9646
    Jul 24, 2018 at 20:29
  • 4
    @yahoo.com they both do, of course, but I would argue that the UK's is the strongest. I don't know, but it might be the case that Germany is still suffering from the effects of having a very considerable number of its eminent scientists flee the Nazi regime and settle in other countries.
    – FourOhFour
    Jul 24, 2018 at 20:46
  • 32
    @yahoo.com Your question seems to massively contradict itself, for what it's worth: "....even though UK's population is much lower? Note. kindly, don't bring up futile arguments like population....". So you raise the issue of population, but also consider it irrelevant. What exactly is your point?
    – FourOhFour
    Jul 24, 2018 at 20:47
  • 8
    I would really love to see historical figures from before WWII. It would look very different.
    – Thomas
    Jul 24, 2018 at 21:15
  • 6
    Before Hitler, German universities were considered among the best. I don't think they've ever recovered. Jul 25, 2018 at 3:46

5 Answers 5


It is very common for academics to not live and work in the country of their birth, and I would assume that this becomes the more common the more research active they are. Many of the publications from British universities will not have been written by British (born) scientists.

Instead, we see stable loops of the following type:

University X has a good reputation -> Productive researchers move to X -> a lot research gets done and published at X -> the reputation of X is good

The UK is home to many very prestigious universities, is not subject to language barriers and has mostly avoided historical disruptions to its research activity.

  • 6
    +1, but also remember the role of funding, which has been reasonably consistent over a long time.
    – Thomas
    Jul 24, 2018 at 22:53
  • 6
    So the answer to the question would be "Because it has a disproportionately high number of good Universities" ?
    – ESR
    Jul 25, 2018 at 0:17
  • Does the UK have a higher % of residents with PhDs than other countries? Jul 25, 2018 at 20:43

Many possible factors, but one that we can prove is that the UK has a disproportionate number of the best universities.

The Times Higher Education World Universities list states that the US has 110 of the 200 best universities worldwide, while the UK has 31, Germany has 20, and China has 7. Of course, this definition of "best" will invite lots of controversy, and will not only be based on research metrics -- but it does not seem impossible that the UK has the second-highest number of excellent universities worldwide. With this many excellent universities, we would expect a correspondingly high number of papers.

Why the UK has so many excellent universities is a different question for which it is harder to come up with hard evidence, though the first-mover advantage that @Arno suggests seems plausible. Excellent universities have an easier time attracting excellent researchers, so it's a vicious cycle.

One corollary: why does China rank so high with only 7 excellent universities? Well, in one sense they don't, China has ~20x more people than the UK. But beyond that, not all papers come from universities, and the Chinese government is investing very heavily in R&D.

  • 13
    One should perhaps note a disclaimer that Times Higher Education comes out of the UK, and thus may be somewhat biased towards the UK and the west.
    – Kimball
    Jul 25, 2018 at 6:23
  • 5
    Best by what measure? Have you ever encountered UK students? The UK's education is so great, that they have to import a large proportion of their PhD students and academics... - Then ranking include research papers, while non US/UK countries carry out research at research institutes. Look at the nature ranking for research by institution, you will find that CNRS suddenly ranks very highly (they are French).
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 25, 2018 at 6:24
  • @DetlevCM I'm not contradicting or confirming your assessments of quality, but they're perhaps less relevant to the claims in the answer. UK universities could still be "excellent" (on someone's measures of output) and have people working there who do good research, without this implying that the education in the universities (or the strength of the UG students) is good
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 25, 2018 at 12:58
  • 2
    @DetlevCM thanks. FWIW I actually agree with your misgivings but once again, I think we are veering away from the original question at hand, namely "Why does the UK produce so many research papers"
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 25, 2018 at 15:23
  • 5
    I believe this is begging the question. These universities are highly ranked to a large degree because of their research output. Arguing that their research output is high because they're highly ranked is therefore circular. Jul 26, 2018 at 11:01

Transforming comments into an anaswer:

One large difference between the UK/US and say Germany and France is that"showing off" is very much accepted in the US or UK, while generally frowned upon in say France (or Germany for that matter).

Having fully embraced the "publish or perish" dogma in the UK (I will guess most applies to the US too, but I have lived in the UK) means that there is a desire to produce as much "output" as possible to create a recognised brand, which hopefully attracts more research funding and international, fee paying students. This has become particularly clear in the UK in recent times, with an excessive focus on rankings for academic and their work, be it h-indices, "impact factors" and whatever they have come up with lately. (There is a new metric of some sort that one university uses.) This of course ignores the fact that research often needs time to be appreciated and utilised.

In part, such visibility can be achieved by employing lots of PhD students - and even large "Russel Group" universities are not immune to effectively becoming diploma mills, at least on the level of individual research groups.

Where the system comes full circle, is in the way that research funding is awarded: Often applicants for grants can benefit from showing a large publication record which again promotes the publication of quantity over quality. The simplest visible effect of this 'world view' is the splitting of large bodies of work into individual research papers rather than publishing a single comprehensive piece of work. Since two papers will, to the administration, look better than one.

Another difference between the UK as well as US and say Germany as well as France is the "job description" of universities. The primary task of a university in Germany of France is to teach - to educate teachers and to train/develop future researchers (or managers/leaders in the system of the French Grand Ecoles). Research takes place at research institutes which can be private or public. Examples of such research groups are for Germany the Max Planck Gesellschaft, Helmholtz Gesellschaft of Fraunhofer. In France we have CNRS but also the CEA.

In contrast, the UK universities, though registered as charities, very much operate like commercial entities. (For those in search of some controversy, an article about the pay of vice chancellors in the UK: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/mar/11/university-vice-chancellors-are-paid-far-more-than-public-sector-peers ) In addition, there is a certain desire amongst politicians to reduce state support for universities - one of the reason for the rise in tuition feeds from 3000 pounds per annum to 9000 a few years ago (around 2011/2012 I think). As a result, universities are required to provide as much income as possible through their own means. In the grand scheme of things universities have three main avenues to sustain funding: 1) tuition fees, overseas students pay especially well, 2) public research grants 3) industry research funding. Some institutions also have access to 4) trusts set up by former students who became wealthy or funds collected through donations.

Points 1 to 3 require public visibility of the university, be it to attract students or to justify why they should be funded through work. The easiest way to obtain such visibility is through papers - which in turn encourages the publication of more papers.

  • 9
    This answer can be summarized as "they publish more because they're vain bean counters". Of course, that's what you want to hear if you dislike the UK, but the reality is that there is also a disproportionate amount of high-quality research coming from the UK.
    – Thomas
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:22
  • 5
    Along the lines of @Thomas ’s comment, this answer seems to be contradicted by the h-index and (to a lesser extent) the citations per document numbers. If the primary reason for the UK’s high research output was that the work is low quality, they wouldn’t have the second highest h-index. Obviously bibliometrics aren’t everything, but it’s hard to look at this data and say that most UK publications are junk in my mind. Jul 25, 2018 at 18:43
  • 16
    I think that the UK is probably one of the countries where the cultural bias against "showing off" is strongest. No data here, just a long association with some UK researchers. Jul 25, 2018 at 20:03
  • 11
    "showing off" is very much accepted in the US or UK Wait, what? In the UK I know, ever since a child can speak it is pretty much ingrained in them that showing off is crass. Don't take me wrong, but having reading that line I found myself doubting everything you wrote after it, as it seems rather biased. Jul 26, 2018 at 0:54
  • 8
    This is heavy on narrative and light on evidence. I call [Citation Needed].
    – Solveit
    Jul 26, 2018 at 1:20

We speak English

A very big factor, and one not mentioned in any answer, is that the British are native English speakers. Since English is, overwhelmingly, the language in which science is published in (thanks America!), native English speakers have a significant advantage in writing papers and getting them accepted.

It's also a big advantage in attracting good scientists from other countries because they already speak the native language. Whereas when I moved to Germany I needed to start learning German, a German PhD moving to the UK for their PostDoc would already speak the local language because they needed it to publish, read research, and present their findings. This makes both living in the country, and the teaching side of the job easier and more accessible. Learning languages is hard, and takes a lot of time, so already knowing the language is a big advantage. This helps the UK maintain long standing network advantages.

  • 1
    india? canada? australia? south africa?
    – user84565
    Jul 25, 2018 at 18:30
  • 3
    @yahoo.com Few very people in India speak English at a C1 level. You’ll see that Canada and India both show up on the top 10 list you posted. Only one country can be #3, and I’m sure that Canada also does disproportionately well due to their linguistic advantage. Yes, there are other factors involved but I am sure that Jack is right that this is a big one. Jul 25, 2018 at 18:34
  • @yahoo.com Australia and Canada do produce impressively large amount of research for their size, while India and South Africa are really not comparable to the UK because they're not first world countries and are much less rich. Jul 25, 2018 at 20:12
  • .... New Zealand?
    – user84565
    Jul 26, 2018 at 16:53

I'd like to add a few points to Arno's answer. This is data from Scimago system, which has been largely run and maintained by the US, UK, and, well, Netherlands where it is based. Countries like India, China, former Soviet Union, etc. have their own systems where their researchers produce massive amount of publications. They are of substandard quality of course because they are hedged from global competition by local bureaucracies and/or language barriers. I'm not sure about India, but China has recently passed regulations that their researchers need to publish at least one paper in Scimago or Web of Science indexed journal to get a PhD and certain academic positions. So expect an uptick there soon, but not great. There are headwinds for non-English speaking countries obviously because of the network effect of English language in science and business. But both Scimago and Web of Science continuously add journals from non-English speaking countries to their rankings.

  • 2
    The UK/west also produces a lot of substandard noise. - The problem of low quality publications is not unique to the non-English world.
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 25, 2018 at 6:25
  • @DetlevCM that is very true. And I think this problem is getting worse with the number of publications doubling every several years, but the number of readers not. But you wouldn't believe the scale of it in developing countries where it seems like there are more writers of scientific papers than readers and barely any quality control, other than formatting requirements. Jul 25, 2018 at 6:32

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