Scientific Articles

Key Messages

  • Nova Scotia scores a B grade on scientific articles, trailing only Switzerland and Sweden in the overall ranking.
  • The extraordinary performance of Switzerland relative to international and provincial peers leads many jurisdictions to receive a lower grade than in the previous report card.
  • New Brunswick remains the lowest-ranking province, earning a D and performing better than only Japan.

Why are scientific articles important to innovation?

Scientific articles are a useful indicator of the state of scientific knowledge and communication in a jurisdiction. And these, in turn, are crucial foundations for innovation. Indeed, articles provide a measure of discovery and knowledge generation by scientists and other researchers at the leading edge of their fields. Articles also synthesize and analyze aspects of the existing state of knowledge and understanding in a discipline. As the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology in Canada notes:

In many fields of S&T [science and technology] the peer-reviewed journal article is the principal method of communicating research advances throughout the world. Peer review is a form of quality control, meaning that other experts in the field believe that the article has merit. Therefore, the number of journal articles can be used as an international comparison of the magnitude of S&T.1

Although the path from insight to publication to innovation can be a long one—and often never completed—an innovative economy and society depends on a strong scientific foundation. The number of peer-reviewed scientific articles provides an indication—admittedly partial and imperfect—of the state of that scientific foundation and its capacity to produce insights that may lead to new and improved products, services, and processes. It also serves as a signal of the extent to which there is active scientific expertise in a region—expertise that innovating businesses and other researchers may be able to turn to for advice and assistance.

How is performance on scientific articles measured?

The scientific articles report card indicator is measured as the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles produced in natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities per million population.

Articles with more than one Canadian author residing in different provinces are counted once in Canada, but counted once for each province where one of the authors resides. For example, an article published by three people who live in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Alberta would be counted once in the Canadian total and one each for B.C., Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

The indicator used in this version of the report card uses a new and expanded data set from the one used in the previous report card.2 Previously, we compared only article counts in the natural sciences and engineering, whereas the current report card includes articles in the social sciences and humanities.

We moved to the new definition for two reasons: first, because the old data set is no longer updated, and second, because we now recognize that innovation depends not only on science and engineering but also on expertise and insights from social sciences and humanities. Successful innovation involves insights from management, marketing, design, psychology, and other people-centered disciplines, along with insights and developments in science, technology, and engineering.

How do the provinces rank relative to international peers?

There is wide variation in provincial performance on the scientific articles indicator. Nova Scotia ranks third overall—trailing only Switzerland and Sweden—and earns an B for its 3,303 publications per million population. Ontario also earns a B for its 2,815 publications and ranks sixth among all jurisdictions.

Six provinces earn Cs and outperform several international peers. Saskatchewan (2,709), Alberta (2,698) and British Columbia (2,661) rank seventh, eighth, and ninth, respectively, just ahead of Canada (2,437), which is ranked 10th and gets a C. Quebec (2,334), Newfoundland and Labrador (2,252), and Manitoba (2,241) also earn C grades but rank below the Canadian average. P.E.I. (1,549) and New Brunswick (1,526) receive D grades for their scientific article output, outperforming only Japan (915).

With 4,619 articles per million population, Switzerland earns the only A and outperforms all other peers by a wide margin. Switzerland produces nearly 1,200 more articles per million than the next ranked peer, Sweden (3,468), which earns a B. Australia and the Netherlands earn the other B grades among international peers. Canada lands in the middle of the pack, earning a C and ranking fifth among the 10 peer countries for which data are available.

How do the provinces rank relative to each other?

Five provinces (Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) fare better than the Canadian count of 2,437 articles per million population, while the remaining provinces (Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, P.E.I., and New Brunswick) fall below the Canadian average.

With 3,303 publications per million population, Nova Scotia is the highest-ranked province and earns a B. Ontario also earns a B for its 2,815 articles per million population. Six provinces get Cs for scientific articles—ranging from 2,709 per million population for Saskatchewan to 2,241 per million population for Manitoba. With 1,549 and 1,526 articles per million population, respectively, P.E.I. and New Brunswick earn D grades and rank last among the provinces.

How has provincial performance changed over time?

The new data allow us to examine provincial and international performance on scientific articles from 2003 to 2014. Over that time, every province and international peer had a significant increase in its count of scientific articles per million population.

Among the provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador saw the largest increase—growing its articles per million population by more than 93 per cent from 2003 to 2014. The provinces with the next highest growth were British Columbia (64 per cent), Quebec (62 per cent), and Nova Scotia (61 per cent). Only Australia had a faster growth rate (102 per cent) than Newfoundland and Labrador. Two other countries also increased their articles per million population substantially—Netherlands (77 per cent) and, the leading jurisdiction overall, Switzerland (73 per cent).

The weakest growth among the provinces was in Prince Edward Island, where articles per million population increased by 25 per cent between 2003 and 2014. Alberta also achieved only weak publication growth, improving by just 38 per cent over the period—versus a Canadian average of 57 per cent.

Internationally, Japan saw the weakest growth, improving by only 14 per cent, while the United States improved by only 31 per cent. Average international growth in articles per million population matched the Canadian average of 57 per cent.

Would citations tell a better story than article counts?

Yes. Peer-reviewed publications are an essential part of research, which itself is a key part of innovation. But publication counts provide primarily just an indication of the quantity of research output, and only partly a measure of research quality to the extent that the publications have been reviewed by a few peers. They do not provide a good measure of the utility and impact of that research.3

One remedy is to look at citation counts, which capture some sense of how an article, and the research on which it is based, has influenced the development of later research. The underlying assumption is that more frequently cited papers have provided new insights that the wider research community finds valuable and/or that have greater utility for other researchers or innovators.

Unfortunately, data that would allow for comparisons of citation counts between provinces and peer countries are not readily available. Previous innovation report cards show that Canada fares reasonably well relative to international peers on a top-cited papers index, but a picture of provincial performance is still a work in progress.


1    Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology in Canada, The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies, 2012), 38.

2    We use custom data from the Council of Canadian Academies’ forthcoming 2018 Report on the State of Science and Technology in Canada. The data were collected and analyzed by ScienceMetrix for the Council of Canadian Academies. The data are on file with the Conference Board and the Council of Canadian Academies.

3    Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology in Canada, The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies, 2012), 47.