He’s making a list,
and checking it twice;
gonna find out
who’s naughty or nice…

Santa Claus is Coming’ to Town, by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

Read. Check. Tick. Move down, that’s done, tick.

We undoubtedly take a certain pleasure in going through a list and ticking off all the things that we’ve already sorted out, item by item. It gives a comforting illusion of order, the impression that we are getting back control over our lives, letting go what’s unnecessary and keeping what matters. Decluttering is an essential need. At times, all we really feel like doing is tidying up, and making sense of the mess that inevitably tends to build up when we go about our daily business.

This is particularly true at the turn of the year, the perfect time to wrap it up, to winnow the wheat from the chaff (in plain English: pick what to keep and what to chuck). The end of December and New Year’s Day are especially conducive to lists. We’ve got, of course, the wish list par excellence, the one we submit to Santa for approval, and, like any other manuscripts (we’re scientists, after all) can be accepted, returned for revision or outright rejected. Except for the last case, we can safely say that writing of presents is a very pleasant pastime – reward circuits hardwired in our brains must fire in anticipation of the upcoming treat.

The dreaded “New Year’s resolution” list is another cup of tea: we all remember how it went last time, we all know we’re bound to fail, and yet we shall fall into the old bad habit of sitting down and drawing up the infamous list, once more, as the dying year is about to flicker out. Frustration, as it seems, will inevitably hit back on the third Monday of January, jokingkly considered the most depressing (a.k.a “Blue Monday“).

And then…there are those lists that you don’t even have to write (unless you are a journalist): you can just sit back and enjoy reading the selection of the most remarkable events or the greatest hits of the year while sipping mulled wine. “The best of (add year here) in (choose a topic)” is a classic late-December theme. Everyone seems to want to have a go at it: from authoritative dictionaries (the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2017 is youthquake) and high-impact scientific journals (Science‘s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year is cosmic convergence), to Chemistry magazines or blogs, and finally TV programmes at a loss for ideas.

Peer-reviewed lists

Arguably, one of the perks of being a scientist – apart from enjoying PhD Comics and going through your e-mails at a New Year’s party – is that you don’t have to wait until December to read ‘best of’ lists: review articles regularly come out all year round. Apart from generalist, flagship titles such as Chemical Society Reviews and Chemical Reviews, there are other journal publishing collections of review articles. Among them, the series Current Opinion in (add topic here) aims to address scientists’ need “to keep up to date with the expanding volume of information published in their subject” (in the publisher’s own words). With new issues every two or three months, these journals publish review dealing with a very specific topic.

We the electrochemists are fortunate enough to have our own Current Opinion in Electrochemistry, launched in January 2017 and reflecting the current fad for today’s renewed interest in electrochemistry; after all, “Never has electrochemical science been more active! Nor has the world seen so many electrochemists!”, as the Editors remark, somewhat echoing Churchill’s rhetorics. The scope and aim of the journal, outlined on the journal homepage, reflect a clear vision: articles should be “clear and readable”, while the vast domain of electrochemistry is broken down into twelve “themed sections”. As far as I can tell, articles in Current Opinion indeed tend to be a more digestible fare than the comprehensive yet usually oh-so-lengthy typical review.

Current Opinion in Electrochemistry has just turned one (offering access to a selection of articles free of charge – a Christmas present of sorts?), and so I find it tempting to look at all the published reviews as yet another end-of-year “best of” list. Inappropriate? I don’t really think so, because, in the end, authors have to be invited (by the editors) before they can write a review. This means that, apart from being recognised as leading scientists in their own research fields, perspective authors also need to have good connections – which never hurts: ‘networking’ has always been part and parcel of the practice of science. By incorporating this twofold prerequisite for selection, these collections of reviews end up reflecting both scientists’ impact and their visibility ‘beyond their science’; as such, these reviews not only provide an overview of the state of the art, but also the closest thing to a “Who’s Who” in contemporary electrochemistry.

Charting electrochemistry

However, what I want to focus on is not the authors themselves or editorial choices – as a humble postdoc, how could I dare defy the foremost authorities? Picking out certain authors and not others could also bruise someone’s ego and put me between a rock and a hard place – not the wisest resolution for the starting year.

Instead, I want to take a spatial turn: an analysis of the affiliations of the authors of the articles published in the first eight issues (six for 2017, plus two in progress and already available online) is a simple approach to mapping out electrochemistry on a global scale. Because I wanted to devote my holidays to (more interesting) pastimes (such as finding ways of braving the harsh cold wave gripping most of Canada), I have kept it simple and I would never claim that my analysis fulfills rigorous statistical criteria and the likes. In short, I have just avoided counting authors twice and, in the case of multiple affiliations, I have tallied both. By the way, I had to do it manually – which kept me busy for the best part of an afternoon a few days ago as I was coming down with a nasty cold.

atlas2018
The areas reflect the number of authors with affiliations in a given country. Data from the first eight issues of Current Opinion in Electrochemistry available online as of end of December 2017.

The resulting “atlas of electrochemistry in 2018” features clusters of countries and some archipelagos isolated amidst empty oceans, a weird planet in which entire continents disappear. Two superpowers stand out, the US and China, followed by other significant players on the global scale such as France, Japan, the UK and, maybe surprisingly, Spain, which outscores Germany. Taken as a whole, Europe is a global leader, a force to be reckoned with. Despite the clear limitations of my analysis (based on a single collection of reviews), the map is a useful snapshot of the leading centres of electrochemical research in 2017 as seen through the lens of their own peers. It also closely compares with more general trends in chemistry publications1 in 2017.

Has it always been like this? The answer is surely no: the global dominance of nations waxes and wanes, in football and science as in geopolitics. Nevertheless, it is quite hard to set out to compare the present situation with, say, that of fifty years ago, and for many different reasons. It would be too boring to address them here at length. Suffice it to remind that, in the Cold War era, electrochemistry and scientific research in general took place in a “divided world” (to echo the title of a Springer book I would like to read, but that is not exactly very affordable).

What lies ahead

As 2018 is about to start, two science powerhouses intensely compete for dominance, against the backdrop of global geopolitical trends and growing international mobility and collaborations. The analysis of the articles in Current Opinion in Electrochemistry shows that this discipline is very multipolar, and we can confidently expect it to become increasingly so, in the wake of changing trends in R&D funding.

Trying to forecast what is to come is one of New Year’s classic “trivial pursuits”, and, like good resolutions, one usually bound to fail. That’s why I won’t yield to the temptation to play the soothsayer: I’ll make no prediction on World Cup or Nobel Laureate winners for 2018. I’ll just send you, my patient readers, my warmest wishes for a wonderful 2018.

And remember:

[…]And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
[…]

[…]Κι αν δεν μπορείς να κάμεις την ζωή σου όπως την θέλεις,
τούτο προσπάθησε τουλάχιστον
όσο μπορείς: μην την εξευτελίζεις
[…]

(As much as you can – original title Όσο Mπορείς, by C.P. Cavafy, Greek text available here, English translation here)

Footnotes

1. According to Web of ScienceTM, of the 31809 records classified as “chemistry” and published in 2017, 25% contain an affiliation in the US, 19% in China, 10% in Germany, 8% in the UK and 7% in India. France, Japan, Spain, Canada and Italy are the remaining countries in the Top 10.

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