The impact of African science: a bibliometric analysis


The number of scientific papers published by researchers in Africa has been rising faster than the total world scientific output in recent years. This trend is relevant, as for a long period up until 1996, Africa’s share of the world scientific output remained below 1.5 %. The propensity to publish in the continent has risen particularly fast since 2004, suggesting that a possible take-off of African science is taking place. This paper highlights that, in parallel with this most recent growth in output, the apparent productivity of African science, as measured by publications to gross domestic product, has risen in recent years to a level above the world average, although, when one looks at the equivalent ratio after it has been normalized by population, there is still a huge gap to overcome. Further it is shown that publications from those few African countries whose scientific communities demonstrate higher levels of specialization and integration in international networks, have a higher impact than the world average. Additionally, the paper discusses the potential applications of the new knowledge that has been produced by African researchers, highlighting that so far, South Africa seems to be the only African country where a reasonable part of that new knowledge seems to be connecting with innovation.

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  1. 1.

    NEPAD stands for The New Partnership for Africa's Development.

  2. 2.

  3. 3.

    Addresses are taken from the WoS™ file of each publication belonging to the indexes analysed. The address consolidation process is a complex scheme which is made jointly with some universities cyclically.

  4. 4.

    To simplify the analysis, Africa was divided in three regions Northern Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Libya); Central Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, The Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Benin, Gambia, Gabon, Mali, Niger, The Republic of the Congo, Togo, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Rwanda, Mauritania, The Central African Republic, Guinea, Chad, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Sao Tome & Principe, Somalia); Southern Africa (South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Mauritius, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Swaziland, The Seychelles, Angola, Lesotho). These groups broadly correspond to the grouping employed by the UN, although the five UN groups have been compressed into three, with the nations designated by the UN as “eastern”, “middle” and “western” merged into a “central” region. South Sudan was the only African country recognized by the UN left out because they became an independent state very recently, on the 9th of July 2011. A similar methodology was used by Adams et al. (2010).

  5. 5.

    An aspect that could be researched further by research in the future, is to assess whether the adding of scientific journals headquartered in African countries to the Thomson Reuters databases in recent years, may have had an impact upon observable trends (Kahn 2011).

  6. 6.

    International comparisons of scientific productivity could also be carried out by dividing the number of scientific papers by the R&D workforce. However, the lack of available data and the possible unreliability of the statistics on the research workforce in some countries (NEPAD 2010), left us with little confidence to take that direction.

  7. 7.

    For each of the disciplinary areas mentioned above, and taking as a reference the value of one for the average world impact, the areas and countries which perform best are as follows: Immunology (Tanzania—1.25; Malawi—1.22; Mozambique—2.04), Clinical medicine (Kenya—1.26; Uganda—1.17; Tanzania—1.19; Zambia—1.30; Mali—1.25; Mozambique—1.54), Microbiology (Uganda—1.55; Tanzania—1.39) and Social sciences (Kenya—1.29; Uganda—1.33; Tanzania—1.64; Zambia—1.38; Malawi—1.78).

  8. 8.

    This refers to the “Science-push model” (in which there is a causal relationship leading from basic science to technology and then on to the market) and the “demand-pull model” (in which the needs of the market determine the rate of new innovations).


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Correspondence to Manuel Mira Godinho.

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Confraria, H., Godinho, M.M. The impact of African science: a bibliometric analysis. Scientometrics 102, 1241–1268 (2015).

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  • Africa
  • Science
  • Research policy
  • Bibliometrics
  • Research assessment
  • Scientific impact

Mathematics Subject Classification

  • 62-07

JEL Classification

  • O38
  • O39