What patents and publications reveal about China-Africa science collaboration

Slowly, Chinese and African researchers are beginning to collaborate more. Blablo101/Shutterstock

China has enjoyed a close economic relationship with a number of African countries for many decades. It has been particularly involved in supporting African countries’ infrastructure projects.

As far back as the 1960s it helped build the Tanzania Zambia Railway. More recently, it’s invested in railway structures in Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. It also contributed enormously to building the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria; and a new parliament building in Harare, Zimbabwe.

These and similar investments have been celebrated by some and made others sceptical. Some scholars, for instance, believe that recent Chinese activities on the continent amount to a “new form of colonialism”.

We wanted to investigate a different type of collaboration between the People’s Republic of China and countries in Africa: how they work together in science and technology (S&T). So we set out to examine the number of research publications that involved authors from China and any African countries. We also explored how many patents have been obtained collaboratively between Chinese experts and those from African countries.

We chose these measures because scholarly publications (research papers) are generally considered as the base measure of research output. Patents, meanwhile, are viewed as the technological output or the applied aspect of scientific research. For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) uses these indicators to measure the performance of any innovation system.

We found an increase in both collaborative publications and patents between 1975 and 2017. During that time there were 12 700 collaborative articles involving Chinese and African authors. But this was limited to researchers from very few African countries – among them South Africa, Egypt and Morocco – that are comparatively stronger in science and technology infrastructure than many others on the continent.

We believe the rise in collaboration between China and some African countries is a good thing. Along with its booming economy, China is the second largest producer of scientific research articles (the US is first) and patents in the world. African researchers could benefit enormously from working closely with their Chinese counterparts. Ultimately this would be good for their countries.

Study findings

For our study, we drew publication data from Web of Science. This is a scholarly literature database maintained by Clarivate Analytics. The database is used for literature searches and citation analysis. For patents, we turned to the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s PATENTSCOPE database.

We retrieved data about joint publications involving Chinese and African researchers, focusing our search on the period from 1975 to 2017. In terms of research papers, there has been a marked increase. In 2007 there were only 263 collaborative research papers; in 2017, there were 3 211 joint papers among Chinese and African researchers.

We found that Morocco, Egypt and South Africa dominated both the publication and patent collaboration with China. This makes sense, as these three countries have fairly well developed S&T infrastructure. That would equip them to work better with China than other African countries that do not have sufficient resources or infrastructure. We also found that they collaborated more widely with other countries outside Africa.

Countries in Africa with weaker science and technology capabilities could reach out to Chinese researchers and institutions to help learn more, grow their output and even develop their infrastructure.

Room for growth

Our findings suggest that the collaborative relationship between China and some African countries is growing – slowly. In the long run, sustainable linkages will be crucial to help African research gain a foothold in the global science and technology chain. So the relationship with China should be developed.