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Citations: »The Danish miracle« is over

Downturn — Danish research used to be among the world's most influential in terms of citation numbers. This is no longer the case.

It came as a surprise to most people in Danish academia when a Swedish report back in 2012 proclaimed that Denmark was among the top nations in terms of global research influence.

In the period from 1990 to 2010, the total Danish citation impact – a metric of the number of citations per research article – had risen to an exceptional level compared to the 39 other countries included in the study.

In fact the trend was so exceptional that the two researchers behind the study dubbed it »the Danish miracle«.

READ ALSO: Nordic praise for ‘Danish miracle’ in research impact

It did not take long, however, for the Danish citation impact to drop. Danish researchers found in 2014 that the upward trend had stagnated. And as no-one knew how the miracle had come about, it was not clear what was needed to keep it that way.

»In Sweden they were distressed about the fact that there could be such a big difference between Sweden and Denmark,« the former Prorector for Research at UCPH (2010-18) Thomas Bjørnholm remembers.

»But in Denmark, we did not not really take it that seriously. We definitely thought it was great fun, but there was no attempt to try and understand the underlying causes,« he says.

It came as a real surprise to us back in 2012, but in reality it did not leave as big an impression as it should have.

Thomas Bjørnholm


This might help to explain why the heady days came to an end – because they certainly did. At least according to a new, follow-up, report that identifies citation impact trends over the past ten years. Using the same method as the original study, the researchers behind the new study have found a continuous decline in citation impact for Danish research from 2010 to 2020.

And the downturn may well be connected to the fact that they never made any proper effort to understand the underlying mechanisms while things were going well, according to Bjørnholm. He is now research director at the Villum Foundation, which has helped finance the new study.

»It came as a real surprise to us back in 2012, but in reality it did not leave as big an impression as it should have.

Needs a full picture

There are good things in the report – a significant increase in the volume of Danish publications for example. But the declining citation impact gives rise to concern among the report’s authors.

»We have not been that good at talking about how things are going now, and what it takes for it to go well in the future,« says one of the authors, senior researcher at Aarhus University Maria-Theresa Norn.

The declining citation numbers should lead to a more in-depth study of how impactful Danish research actually is internationally.

»Many of the studies in the field try to answer one specific question. So they tend to suffer from tunnel vision,« she says, and calls for a thorough review to try and find out the underlying complicated causes and mechanisms.

READ ALSO: Danish numbers illustrate how scientists cite each other

»I’m not certain that the system that we have leads to enough variation in research. Whether it gives enough space to develop talent and to undertake the kind of risky research that in the longer term also leads to new breakthroughs and new research areas,« she says.

»But that’s exactly what we need to find out.«

We have not been that good at talking about how things are going now, and what it takes for it to go well in the future.

Maria-Theresa Norn


Maria-Theresa Norn points to the research commission which was set up in 2000 and that published its report in 2001.

»It delivered a thorough analysis of the Danish research system. And on this basis they made recommendations to politicians and the ministries on how to support Danish research in the coming years. This, as many people have pointed out, helped to lay the foundations for a broad political agreement on the research field in the years that followed.«

As Norn’s report shows, however, a lot has changed since 2001. But a similar analysis has not been carried out since then.

»It is clearly something along these lines that we are looking for,« she says.

Thomas Bjørnholm agrees.

»The analysis would be a great opportunity for universities, foundations, and the government to sit down together and talk about the fact that we have delivered an increase in Danish research in terms of volume, which is fantastic — but how do we increase the impact of research? That is the question,« he says.