International Research Collaboration: Motivations, facilitators and limitations

Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) states that about 40 percent of research production within the agency is the result of international collaboration.

April 24, 2016

In “Thoughts on International Research Collaboration” Marcelo Knobel questions what Brazil could do to further strengthen the collaboration between Brazilian and American scientists.  This year, Angela Corengia, Marcelo Rabossi, Dante Salto and I wrote a chapter on “International Partnerships for Collaborative Research in Argentine Universities” that addresses quite similar issues.

According to Argentine experiences, research collaboration in key areas tends to enhance results, improve academic performance, and develop human resources in critical ways.  Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) states that about 40 percent of all research production within the agency is the result of international collaboration. Strategic partners involve research centers in the United States (US), Spain, and Brazil. This expansion is reflected in the growing number of international co-authored papers – from 1,745 in 2000 to 3,565 in 2010. As a consequence, the relative weight of the country’s scientific production with international collaboration also increased, representing 34.1 percent of total scientific production in 2000 and 42.3 percent at the end of 2010. Indeed, international collaboration in the scientific domain appears to have contributed to boosting national productivity.

Our chapter, to be published in a book edited by Gustavo Gregorutti and Nanette Svenson, analyzes the motivation behind international research collaboration in Argentina and assesses the advantages and limitations of those partnerships. To this end, we took a case-study approach and included the Institute of Chemical Physics of Materials, Environment and Energy (INQUIMAE) at the University of Buenos Aires (public institution) and the School of Biomedical Sciences (FCB) at Austral University (private institution).

Our main findings are in line with what Marcelo Knobel asserted in his article.  Motivation to establish formal links with foreign centers usually originates through individual contacts between researchers working in different centers. In the case of INQUIMAE, the research center developed thanks to funding from the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (Deutsche Gesellschaftfür Technische Zusammenarbeit-GTZ), an association initiated by the INQUIMAE director with an Argentine colleague working in Germany. FCB follows a similar path, linked through bonds developed during postdoctoral academic training. Although individual connections spurred most of the partnerships analyzed in this study, the majority of these links were subsequently structured so as to continue work with their foreign counterparts, regardless of the involvement of the individuals that initially established the cooperative alliances.

In a resource-constrained context, such as that experienced by Argentine universities, obtaining access to resources that are unavailable in the home country is motivation enough to establish links abroad. Besides the personal ties with foreign researchers, most partnerships strategically involved collaborations with European universities that provided funding for infrastructure in addition to travelling expenses, beyond what US funding typically allows for.  Also, in the cases analyzed, the science and technology agencies from the home country (Argentina), such as CONICET and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation (MINCYT), have played a critical role in funding local research positions, and doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships.

Though crucial, this funding is neither the only nor the major motivation to embark on associations with international universities. Several interviewees mentioned how these international relationships brought added prestige to their research centers, strengthening both internal and external legitimation in the academic community. Researchers tend to value their cross-border associations as a means to increase their productivity and because the impact of their research goes beyond the local academic community. In some areas, such as in the medical sciences, publishing in international journals and participating in key conferences is the only way to stay up-to-date with the latest developments.

Researchers at INQUIMAE also agreed that international cooperation between the global South and the industrialized North helps increase productivity. This type of cooperation connects researchers with scholars in centers of excellence elsewhere and allows those from the South to use infrastructure unavailable in their home country, ultimately helping to increase the number of publications in prestigious research journals. Despite espoused double-blind peer reviews, we could say that influential researchers from well-established institutions in developed countries have better chances of publishing in reputed journals than unknown researchers from somewhat isolated centers in Latin America. One researcher told us that this issue is also affected by questions of scale and networking. He said, “While a US researcher may attend five or six international conferences a year, his or her counterpart at INQUIMAE goes to no more than one or two academic events." He claimed it was harder for Southern scholars to build strong networks to confront the “publish or perish” dilemma and noted that it was easier to be cited in another publication if they knew you personally. Nothing could replace a personal contact, even when your work is available over the Internet. The human factor plays a fundamental role.

This study also corroborates how influential certain organizational features can be to the relative success of these endeavors. Strong departmental leadership tends to increase the chances of partnership survival in the long run. In the case of INQUIMAE, interviewees highlighted that the university’s central offices were instrumental in signing agreements, but the key to success was the local, departmental management of the specific partnership. To some extent, arrangements at the departmental level were considered more productive and less bureaucratic than those at the university level. Other constraints were linked to economic stability and bureaucratic issues on both sides of the partnership.

In sum, the benefits that Argentine research units gain through international networking with top-notch centers from the global North are many. Among these, interviewees mentioned: better dynamics for researchers’ and fellows’ mobility from the South to the North; improved job possibilities as academics; more funding for research and infrastructure; better opportunities to access sophisticated equipment that is unavailable in Argentina; the potential to broaden the network of contacts for future projects; and increased opportunities to publish in well-known and prestigious journals. At the same time, these groups have faced a number of political and bureaucratic obstacles to keeping the cooperation programs active and productive. The combination of macroeconomic instability and exchange rate volatility makes it harder to acquire essential laboratory equipment and supplies. Indeed, the Argentine government has a critical role in creating the legal and economic conditions to strengthen these fruitful international research collaborations.


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