British Companies Share Their Secrets

LONDON--Corporate scientists often must hide proprietary data to protect a bottom line. But at least in Britain, that doesn't mean they're unwilling to share the fruits of their basic research. According to a report released here today, over the past 15 years, top companies have published more research papers than many British universities have, although numerous studies were done as joint university-industry collaborations.

Diana Hicks and Sylan Katz at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex analyzed a database of more than 40,000 scientific papers published between 1981 and 1994. They found that scientists with Imperial Chemical Industries, a chemical manufacturer headquartered in London, had their names attached to more than 4600 papers; scientists at each of two pharmaceutical giants--SmithKline Beecham and Wellcome (now part of Glaxo)--churned out more than 2000. In contrast, although Cambridge University topped the list at 25,000 papers in the study period, about one-third of Britain's universities produced fewer than 2000.

To tease out whether the corporate research was high quality, Hicks and Katz assessed the number of citations to each paper in the 4 years after publication. "It's common to ask what science can do for companies. Here we ask what companies are doing for science," the authors write. In the life sciences, papers with industry authors garnered more citations on average--about 10 per paper--than did papers with only university scientists--about seven. Industry researchers in other fields averaged slightly fewer than their academic colleagues.

The surge in British corporate science is being fueled in part by increasing collaboration between company and academic researchers. Such joint efforts more than doubled in frequency over the study period--from 18% to 40% of all U.K. industry-linked publications. Although the British government has been pressing academics to forge alliances with industrial researchers, Katz argues that the initiative to join forces has instead welled up primarily from within the scientific community, as researchers learn to appreciate their corporate colleagues. Industrial research, he says, has shown itself to be "dynamic, diverse, and adaptive."