The world has long thought of Russia as a scientific superpower and China as a developing one.
One only has to look at the history of the space race to see why. The Soviet Union was the first country to put man in space, doing so in 1961.
By contrast, China only put a man into space recently, in 2003.
But a recent study of how many scientific papers the two countries publish each year shows that any perception of Russia as ahead and China as behind may now be out of date. Thompson Reuters, the parent company of the Reuters news agency, reports today that Chinese research accounts for 8.4 percent of the papers published in the world's scientific journals. That is over three times the number of research papers published by Russian scientists. The study, which looked at journals over a five year period, found Russia contributed only 2.6 of the world's published research. Dramatically, Russia has also been overtaken by India, which publishes 2.9 percent of the world total, and now stands just ahead of Brazil, which published 2.1 percent.
The new report confirms what many in the scientific world have already been suspecting for a long time. That is: Russian science is increasingly becoming a minor player in the global science arena that they once jointly dominated with the West.
Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thompson Reuters, says "while other countries have increased their output, Russia has struggled to maintain its output."
"Russia's research base has a problem, and it shows little sign of a solution," he adds. That problem includes lack of government funding for state-affiliated science institutes and a "brain drain" of talent to countries that offer well-trained Russian scientists greater opportunities.
But Adams says there is also a problem of shifting attitudes toward science amid the Russian population at large. He notes that just 1 percent of Russians polled in 2006 named science as a prestigious career.
China, on the other hand, has shown steady growth in its output of scientific papers over recent years, just as in its economy. Late last decade, China became the world's second leading country in terms of volume of scientific studies, lagging only behind the United States. Where China published only 20,000 research papers in 1998, Thompson Reuters found that the number had ballooned more than five times -- to 112,000 papers -- by 2008.
By comparison, the number of papers published by scientists in the United States over that same 10 year period increased a little over one-and-a-quarter times, to 340,000.
Researchers say that if China maintains its explosive growth curve, its output of papers could overtake that of the United States within this decade.
As for Russia, the current study does not try to predict what could happen to its output of papers if it does not curb its own decline.
But the prospect has already proved worrying enough to Russian scientists themselves that there are regular calls upon the government to start spending more to support research institutions.
In October last year, a group of more than 170 emigre Russian scientists signed an open letter to the Kremlin. "We consider it our duty to draw attention to the catastrophic conditions of fundamental science in the country," they wrote.
Now, the latest study of research papers published worldwide only underlines the urgency of that warning.