Institutions in Saudi Arabia are casting their nets far in search of collaborative research partners. In 2015 scientists affiliated with Saudi institutions co-authored papers with counterparts from 89 countries in journals included in the Nature Index.

Welcoming international researchers, Saudi Arabia has forged worldwide collaborations that helped rapidly boost the country's science output. Credit: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/Alamy Live News

The bulk of these collaborations are with global research powerhouses, rather than with close regional neighbours. The three countries with which Saudi Arabia collaborated most between 2012 and 2015 are the United States, China and — after overtaking Germany in 2015 — the United Kingdom. In the index, Saudi collaborations with all of its top 10 international partners have increased in recent years. Joint research with the US grew the most, but Saudi research outputs with China have also nearly tripled during that period, as measured by collaboration score, which tallies the sum of all of the Kingdom's bilateral research collaborations.

Saudi Arabia's growing involvement in international collaboration follows its growth in overall output in the Nature Index, in particular in chemistry and the physical sciences. The country's favoured collaborators don't always follow the broader pattern when subject areas are considered in detail. In chemistry, for example, Germany is still its second-largest collaborator after the United States, ahead of China and Canada.

Leading institutions, different patterns

International collaborations In 2015 Saudi researchers worked with counterparts in 89 countries to produce research counted in the Nature Index. This network diagram shows Saudi Arabia's collaborations with other countries in the index in 2015. The circle sizes relate to collaboration score, which is shown for Saudi Arabia's top collaborators in each region.

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The two key players in Saudi Arabia's rising international collaborations are King Abdulaziz University (KAU) on Saudi Arabia's west coast in Jeddah and its closest competitor, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), located about 135km north of Jeddah in Thuwal.

KAU collaborations with US institutions made up 49% of all collaboration scores between Saudi Arabia and US institutions in 2015, while its collaborations with Chinese and UK institutions represented 54% and 21% of collaboration scores between Saudi institutions and their counterparts in these countries. Collaborations involving KAUST, meanwhile, represent 27%, 23% and 44% of collaboration scores with US, Chinese and UK institutions for that same year. Analysing contributions of these two universities to their collaborations reveals distinct patterns, however. Between 2012 and 2015, KAU had a larger collaboration score than KAUST, but its own contribution to the collaborative efforts remains lower.

A factor that could contribute to this may be multiple affiliations on papers. When authors cite multiple affiliations on papers, the Nature Index divides credit among the affiliated institutions through the fractional count (FC) measure. The more affiliations an author has, the smaller the FC attributed to each institution. Collaboration scores for an individual institution are therefore reduced.

KAUST has specifically aimed at attracting international faculty to its campus. “When we hire people, we really look for commitment,” says Jean Fréchet, KAUST's vice president for research. “We want them to understand that we are looking for goals of excellence. They have a great research environment here, so generally when we hire people we hire them to come full-time.”

Working with the best

Now we are an ongoing institution we are trying to make sure that our researchers can choose who they work with.

When KAUST was founded in 2009, it set up a global collaborations programme with several international universities to help it get established, hire researchers and build laboratories. This programme, which ended in 2015, is the reason KAUST shows major collaborations in the index with France, Singapore, the US and the UK, explains Fréchet. “But it's not a sustainable model in the long term,” he says. “This was entirely driven from the top. It had advice from academics, but we had nobody to drive the programme. Now we are an ongoing institution and we are trying to make sure that our researchers can choose who they work with,” he says.

It has to be complementary. You don't want someone riding on the back of somebody else.

Fréchet says KAUST researchers are encouraged to work with the best experts in their fields. “It has to be complementary. You don't want to have somebody riding on the back of somebody else,” he says. “In a collaboration, both parties have to provide something and you really want complementary expertise.”

This strategy seems to have paid off. When it comes to co-authoring papers in the Nature Index, KAUST has consistently been contributing roughly the same collaboration scores as its international partners.

Many of KAUST's international collaborations address regional challenges, such as synthetic membranes research for water purification at the Advanced Membranes and Porous Materials Center. Credit: Anastasia Khrenova/KAUST

KAUST researchers are encouraged to spend up to 40% of their baseline research funding on external collaborations, says Fréchet. The university's research centres are also encouraged to spend 20% of their budgets externally to bring expertise that may be lacking at the young university.

Under its new collaboration model, KAUST is now funding six highly multidisciplinary programmes on sensors research. “We are not only setting up a worthwhile scientific programme,” says Fréchet, “but we are helping to broaden our own people. We make them think out of the box. We make them think about something they have never thought about before, because it's not in their field.”

Looking at chemistry, the index shows that KAUST's collaboration score with UK institutions — which represent the third largest group after the US and France — increased from 2.5 in 2012 to 10.8 in 2015. In 2015, KAUST's top UK collaborator by far in chemistry was Imperial College London (ICL). In 2015 the data show that this partnership with ICL is KAUST's top partnership overall that year.

King Saud University (KSU) in the capital, Riyadh, the country's third-largest contributor to the index, is not an exception to the country's research trends. In 2015, however, it increased its collaboration with Russian institutions, making that country its collaboration partner of choice behind China and the US. Its top three collaborating institutions were Fudan University in China, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and Novosibirsk State University (NSU), both of which are in Russia.

Materials chemist, Ahmed Elzatahry, is prominent in KSU's collaboration with Fudan University. Elzatahry developed a relationship with Dongyuan Zhao, one of the world's top scientists in the field of mesoporous materials, in 2010 when Elzatahry was working in Egypt. When he moved to KSU in 2012, he took his research relationship with Zhao with him. This relationship has led to Elzatahry co-authoring several papers with Zhao, co-supervisions of PhD theses for KSU students, and an ongoing collaboration between KSU and Zhao that continues even though Elzatahry has recently moved on to Qatar University.

KSU clearly sees benefits to working with their counterparts on the international stage. Like their more prominent counterparts, most of the other 18 Saudi institutions whose international collaborations led to index publications have seen both their overall index output and their collaboration scores increase. The policy seems to have paid back for Saudi Arabia, which is likely to continue its pursuit of international partners as it works to boost its science output.boxed-text