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Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot


Q. In your report Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot, you provide a statistical analysis of water research between the years 2012 and 2017. What is the significance of the time frame you chose for the analysis? What can you tell us about water research trends before 2012?

We published this report to provide a snapshot of global water-related research and to gauge the trends, pace, and potential impacts of this water-related research. During the inception phase of the report, we analysed the bibliographic data and found that the most recent research was reflective of the research trends from the last two decades. Hence we narrowed down the reporting period to 2012-2017, to provide easy to digest statistics for the stakeholders and also to complete the analysis within one year.

The total number of water-related documents and citations recorded over the study period were 1.2 million and 1.5 million, respectively. We are currently working on a research paper which will present data from the last 15 years, which is again more of an academic exercise.

Q. The report takes into account various trends in water-related research. What were your key findings and recommendations?

The most critical finding was our inability as a scientific community to convert data into information and knowledge products for evidence-based decision making. We are creating a massive amount of data (according to IDC[1], the global data sphere will grow from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 by 2025). However, only a tiny percentage of this data is being converted into information and knowledge products.

This data gap is reflected in our report; our analysis only includes the academic papers indexed by Scopus. Reports, policy papers, newsletters, fact sheets, blogs, and bulletins generated by various governments, donor agencies, and research centres are still not indexed in any database and couldn’t be made part of the analysis for this report.

The analysis also showed that if water research is to have a more significant positive development impact on countries and regions facing growing water-related problems, it is time to start looking beyond the research ‘box’, to develop measures or protocols that support practical and positive development impacts from water research – rather than academic impact measured by citations. Water research results can achieve increased impact if they succeed in presenting concepts and solutions in a simple and useful way to stakeholders beyond research circles.

In terms of trends, we found that overall China and the U.S. are the leading publishers of water-related research and have the highest research impact, as measured by citation-related indicators only. However, the U.S. has more than 70% of its publications being cited globally, while China’s water research output appears at present to be primarily locally consumed. This may be due to linguistic, quality, or focus related issues.

In 2017, ten times more U.S. publications were cited in Chinese water research, when compared to Chinese citations in U.S. research. Global water knowledge flows suggest that research is hardly addressing a range of regional water challenges. Countries with protracted water problems in infrastructure, environment, agriculture and energy solutions do not seem to be at the forefront of water research production or knowledge transfer.

Instead, global water research is reliant on western, mainly U.S.produced scientific outputs.

Q.You point out how reliant the global water research community is on western, particularly U.S. scientific output. To what do you attribute this trend and how has it shaped the water publishing space?

The U.S. is the powerhouse of water-related research. This is mainly because the U.S. invests the most in research and development, attracts the most venture capital, awards the most advanced degrees, provides the most business, financial and information services, and is the largest producer in high-tech manufacturing sectors. It is this ecosystem which has propelled the U.S. as a leader in water-related research, information and knowledge generation and dissemination.

Q. Which countries are at the forefront of knowledge transfer and publishing the most academic research?

The U.S. and China are at the forefront, mainly because of the investment in R&D. In 2018, the U.S. led the world in R&D expenditures at $496 billion (26% of the global total), followed by China at $408 billion. Again, we were unable to calculate what percentage of this R&D investment was made in the water sector. However, this investment is reflected in the research output.

If we look at 2017, China had a significant share of water-related research (19%) followed by the U.S (14%) and India (5%). In terms of water research output growth, in 2017, China published 42% more papers than at the beginning of the period in 2012; and China’s publishing rate has been steadily growing by at least 5-7% a year since 2012. The U.S. increased its water-related publications in 2017 by 5% compared to 2012.

Q. Who commissions these reports and how is the research used?

These reports are commissioned by the United Nations University – Institute of Water Environment and Health. The metrics used in this report are based on readily available bibliographic data. They can be further focused to better understand a specific thematic domain, geographical region or country, or to analyse a different period to help accelerate solutions to global and national water challenges.

Q. ´Grey Literature` is a concept you outline in the report in relation to the quality and focus of published water-related research. How would you define this concept?

‘Grey Literature’ refers to research that is either unpublished and unindexed or has been published in non-commercial form. A majority of the documents published in the development sector fall under this category. Examples of grey literature include newsletters, policy briefs, white papers, government reports, etc. The majority of grey literature is of a high quality. However, it is still difficult to gauge the trends and impacts related to this category.

Q. How do countries measure the development impact of water research programs?

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all tool to measure the development impact of water research programs. The tools vary based on the nature of the water research program and also because development impacts are multidimensional and qualitative. The monitoring, evaluation, and reporting of development impacts have significantly improved by the inclusion of new tools, assessments, and indicators e.g. SDG 6 indicators and targets.

We feel that the bibliometric analysis presented in the report can be an index or part of the index to gauge the development impact of water research impacts.

Q. You highlight the importance of conveying research findings 'in a practical way to real users, stakeholders who are beyond research circles'. Who are these stakeholders and how will you reach them?

These stakeholders include academia, policymakers, politicians, and anybody interested in gauging the impact of water-research. We plan to present this report to various forums and platforms. If we can gather enough interest, we plan to build the capacity of the interested stakeholders through our Water Learning Center ( on how to carry out such bibliometric analysis at a more granular level (geographic as well as thematic) to better understand the impact.


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