An Overview of Academic Consumer Interest Research in Canada (ca02843)

Part Two: Academic Consumer Interest Research in Canada

Programs in consumer studies/sciences

Three decades ago, Kroll and Hunt presented consumer-interest study as an emerging discipline that was at the interdiscplinary stage of its evolution, where practitioners from related disciplines recognize the desirability of coordinated efforts. The authors anticipated a next stage, i.e. that the consumer interest area could become more than an interdisciplinary area of study:

In the uni-discplinary stage, a field achieves unique disciplinary status. That is, the important elements of its nature are recognized as distinguished from those of the traditional disciplines with which it is most closely associated.

(Kroll and Hunt 1980)

Kroll and Hunt had suggested that, while not crucial, establishing an appropriate title for this field of research could contribute to the general acceptance of the field's uni-discplinary potential. There is still no single, commonly recognized title for a CIR-related academic field, as illustrated by Figure 1. This lack of a single title makes it difficult to assess the presence of consumer-interest programs in higher education institutions.

Today, only the Universities of Guelph and Laval can be readily identified as having programs with consumer studies / sciences as their principle raison d'etre.Footnote 17 However, relevant programs likely exist in other (sub)disciplines, such as the traditionally consumer-focused disciplines of home economics and human ecology. For example, Smith and de Zwart 2010 noted that seven universities Canada-wide offered after degree programs in home economics/family studies teacher education (University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Manitoba, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, York, Mount St Vincent) and two universities offered concurrent programs (Saskatchewan and Moncton). The identification of all potentially relevant departments is not straightforward, given various changes in nomenclature and restructuring having occurred in home economics and consumer sciences programs.Footnote 18 Special CIR-relevant programs may also exist in various university departments across Canada, such as the internatioal, graduate-level Summer School in Consumer Law that was co-organized in 2011 and 2009 by the Groupe de recherche en droit international et comparé de la consommation (GREDICC), a research unit within the University of Quebec in Montreal's (UQAM) Faculty of Law and Political Science.Footnote 19

Nevertheless, today's situation seems to reflect a downward trend in various CIR-related programs, which brings with it important consequences. In her review of the status of consumer education in Canada, McGregor 2000 noted that:

Much has changed within the university climate regarding consumer studies and I know of only six units that offer consumer education topics or courses in 2000. This decline in departments and course offerings means that fewer teachers will enter the school system with preparation in consumer education, and by association, are much less likely to teach consumer education even if there is an existing curriculum (…)

(McGregor 2000)

Such concerns about teacher preparation in CIR-relevant (sub)disciplines are still present, as noted more recently in a 2010 study of home economics teacher education. Smith and Zwart 2010 illustrated "that the problem of the declining supply of home economics teachers is a world-wide phenomenon" and highlighted issues in Canada, in the context of the dismantling or re-structuring of many home economics programs:

Potential home economics teachers do not necessarily have a common background: some may have degrees in family relations, applied nutrition, consumer studies, fashion design, or some other combination. Related concerns include replacements of retiring professors of home economics education, the continued marginalization and struggle for survival of small programs, and the effects of international recruitment of Canadian home economics/family studies teachers.

(Smith and Zwart 2010)

In their analysis of the content of Canadian university consumer education courses.Footnote 20 McGregor and MacDonald 1997 had also noted concerns with nature of the programs, as their results inferred that "any student intending to get a BED [Bachelor of Education] to teach family studies / home economics was provided an opportunity to learn money and resource management, decision making and financial planning but less so consumer protection and advocacy" (reported in McGregor 2000).

In 2008, Industry Canada undertook a summary analysisFootnote 21 of the course titles and descriptions from the 92 Canadian public and private not-for-profit universities and university-degree level colleges that were listed on the website of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).Footnote 22 The analysis found 131 undergraduate courses with 'consumer or consommateur' in the title.Footnote 23 Eighty-one of these, or just over 60%, were found to be consumer / buyer behaviour courses, often taught in schools of commerce or business, with an emphasis on consumer decision processes and the influence of social, cultural, and psychological factors on how consumers behave in marketplace transactions. In comparison, only twenty-four courses had a focus on consumer protection or consumer legal issues. Overall, courses appeared less geared toward the consumer interest.

A similar trend towards emphasizing commercial interests in consumer-related programs was noted in a 2005 report on The Need for Postgraduate Education in Consumer Affairs in the European Union: "While they do indeed deal with consumer issues, their predominant logic is that of the marketing and sale of products and services rather than that of the protection and empowerment of the consumer." (Quici et al., 2005). Commissioned by the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO) of the European Commission (EC), the report recommended the creation of a European master-degree program in consumer affairs, a proposal that was realized in 2009 (see textbox).

EURECA: European Union Master's Programme in Consumer Affairs

The EURECA master's degree program was started in 2009. It was created to improve the supply of highly educated and qualified employees in the field of consumer affairs. The program is offered through a consortium of four European universities. Students follow courses on the basics of consumer affairs, and must then choose two of the ten specializations offered:

  • Consumer Affairs Management;
  • Consumer Economics;
  • Consumer Studies;
  • Consumer, Technology and Innovation;
  • Economics and Management;
  • Food Policy and Management;
  • Marketing;
  • Marketing Management;
  • Markets and Innovation; and,
  • Sustainable Consumption.

Source: EURECA Master's Degree Program


Funding of Academic CIR

The absence of a clearly-defined title for the CIR domain also makes it difficult to analyze the funding arrangements under which it takes place. In terms of public funding, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and various public policy entities (primarily government departments and agencies) are likely the major source of funds for specific CIR projects.

SSHRC provides detailed electronic information on all of its funding. However, a reliably complete picture of the Council's funding of CIR work cannot be guaranteed, due to the lack of straightforward search terms (a single discipline title, or unique specialized vocabulary). Nonetheless, a CIR search was conducted by Industry Canada, using 'consumer or consommateur' in the 'title and keyword' field of the SSHRC database. For contribution year 2010–2011, the results from this broad consumer search included 94 research projects, dispersed across 16 various disciplines. Figure 2 illustrates how the number of 'consumer' search results has grown, in parallel with an increase in the number of disciplines associated to the results.While the total number of 'consumer or consommateur' results in a given fiscal year picks up duplicates from the previous year (i.e. projects that received payments over more than one fiscal year), this nonetheless represents one base for consideration to identify potential scholars who have been involved in CIR and insights that may be relevant for consumer policy.

Figure 2: Results for 'title and keyword' search using 'consumer or consommateur' in SSHRC database, by fiscal year


Figure 2 Results for 'title and keyword' search using 'consumer or consommateur' in SSHRC database, by fiscal year

Source: Industry Canada searches on the SSHRC Awards Search Engine

Description of figure 2

This chart presents the results for a 'title and keyword' search using the 'consumer or consommateur' keywords in the database of awards granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The horizontal axis is the total number of research projects receiving funding during a fiscal year, according to the 'consumer or consommateur' keyword search results. The vertical axis is the number of disciplines found in the the 'consumer or consommateur' keyword search results. The chart includes a bullet for each fiscal year between 1998–1999 and 2010–2011. For a given fiscal year, the positioning of the bullet illustrates both the number of SSHRC research projects picked up by the 'consumer or consommateur' keyword search (horizontal axis) and the number of disciplines across those SSHRC funded research projects.

The number of research projects picked up by a 'consumer' search of the database has increased over time. This occurred in parallel with an increase in the number of disciplines associated to the 'consumer' search results.

When doing a 'consumer' search on the SSHRC awards search engine by fiscal year, the number of research projects and the number of disciplines presented on the chart are:

The number of research projects and the number of disciplines presented on the chart
Fiscal year Number of research projects Number of disciplines
For 1998–1999 23 research projects 8 disciplines
For 1999–2000 21 research projects 7 disciplines
For 2000–2001 18 research projects 9 disciplines
For 2001–2002 26 research projects 11 disciplines
For 2002–2003 31 research projects 11 disciplines
For 2003–2004 49 research projects 15 disciplines
For 2004–2005 58 research projects 11 disciplines
For 2005–2006 83 research projects 13 disciplines
For 2006–2007 86 research projects 14 disciplines
For 2007–2008 99 research projects 16 disciplines
For 2008–2009 86 research projects 16 disciplines
For 2009–2010 101 research projects 16 disciplines
For 2010–2011 94 research projects 16 disciplines

Note: The total number of projects recieving SSHRC funding over the course of a given fiscal year includes duplicates from the total number of projects identified in the previous fiscal year, given that a number of SSHRC projects are eligible to receive payments over more than one fiscal year.

However, the use of a simple "consumer or consommateur" keyword search is a very imperfect approach, and subject to other constraints associated to the search tool. For example, the 'consumer' subset of 94 projects compares to a total of more than 9,600 projects that received some SSHRC funding in 2010–2011. While not captured by a 'consumer' search, a number of these other projects undoubtedly have some relevance to CIR, but they are not easily identifiable.

In addition, while three of the 94 results for 2010–2011 that are illustrated in Figure 2 refer to Canada Research ChairsFootnote 24, further investigation of the Canada Research Chairs' own databaseFootnote 25 indicates that other Chairs have definite importance in terms of CIR-related work.Footnote 26 Indeed, the "consumer or consommateur" keyword search on the Canada Research Chairs program's database provided many more results than the "consumer or consommateur" search in the SSHRC Awards Search Engine. A greater number of research chairs would have been identified with the use of additional keywords such as "consumption", "marketplace" or a number of other CIR-related terms. However, the CIR-relevance of such expanded search results would need to be assessed.Footnote 27

As previously highlighted (under Linkages to consumer policy-making), academic CIR can also be commissioned in the context of formal advisory or consultative work in the public sector. In addition, in the regular course of their monitoring and analytical work, government departments periodically contract with experts to obtain subject-specific reports. However, it is very difficult to identify these reports, let alone analyze the CIR-related results obtained through this approach. The analysis provided under contract to policy makers is not necessarily published in stand-alone documents, and thus may not always be readily located through online or other searches.Footnote 28

Researchers involved in CIR may also be tapping into various other sources of funding. At the provincial level, for example, researchers in Québec can also access funds through the Fonds de recherche du Québec– Société et culture.Footnote 29 A CIR-specific foundation also exists: the Fondation Claude Masse's mission is to support research into and the dissemination of knowledge related to law, economics and other fields that study consumption and how markets work, and to promote the development of and compliance with legislation pertaining to consumption, competition and the workings of markets.Footnote 30 These and other examples further extend the number of disperse sources that would need to be explored for a more detailed review of CIR in Canada.

Publication of Canadian academic CIR

There are currently no Canadian-based peer-reviewed scholarly journals specifically dedicated to CIR. An exception from the past was the Canadian Home Economics Journal, which published from 1950 up until the Canadian Home Economics Association's dissolution in 2003 and included a refereed section for original academic research articles.Footnote 31 That is not to say that publication of Canadian academic CIR is nonexistent today. Canadian academic CIR has been published in such international publications as the Journal of Consumer Affairs, the Journal of Consumer Education, the Journal of Consumer Policy, the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Family and Economic Issues and the International Journal of Consumer Studies. Interestingly, while some scholars have noted that publishing in such international journals has obliged them to dilute the Canadian content or focus of their work, others have never experienced this phenomenon.Footnote 32

In addition, a number of CIR-related Canadian papers have been published through Canadian academic journals not specific to CIR. These include multidisciplinary publications (e.g., Canadian Social Science) as well as disciplinary-specific journals (e.g., Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics). Canadian academic work has similarly been published in international non-CIR-specific journals.

A new type of CIR-related journal: online Journal of Research for ConsumersFootnote 33

To date, however, the Web journals to which academics contribute continue to target academic, and to a lesser extent, managerial audiences. There is thus the opportunity to establish a Web journal that can provide a forum for academic research to be communicated to both academic and layman audiences. Such a journal would need to achieve the two objectives of communicating research findings to consumers and satisfying the legitimacy requirements of those determining the quality of academic publications through such processes as double-blind peer review. The Journal of Research for Consumers is structured to attend to both of these objectives. It has two streams of articles, catering to the two different audiences to which it is directed. One stream contains articles that report consumer-oriented research findings with the academic rigour associated with traditional journals. A second stream is comprised of articles that convey the same research findings communicated in layman's terms. Stripped of their jargon and extensive citations, these articles are targeted directly at consumers. (…) Contributors to the journal are thus required to provide two versions of their papers—one to be directed at academic audiences and one to be directed to the general public.

(Pettigrew 2001)

There are also consumer-interest related topic areas defined in the open-access multi-field Social Science Research Network (SSRN) eLibraryFootnote 34 which consists largely of working papers or pre-publication versions of scholarly articles, including items from Canadian researchers; there are also relevant abstracting eJournals on the site. Examples of CIR-relevant SSRN network elements include: Consumer Law eJournalFootnote 35, Microeconomics: Intertemporal Consumer Choice & Savings eJournal, Consumer Social Responsibility eJournal, and Behavioural Marketing eJournal. SSRN is an increasingly popular outlet for academic researchers (over 200,000 authors have contributed to SSRN, as of August 30, 2012). While an open access service such as SSRN may not be as valuable to academics in terms of career advancement (e.g. may not meet the publication standards required for the purposes of tenure), it can play an important role in research dissemination and collaboration. In their survey work with European journal authors, Fry et al. 2011 concluded that the central role of peer-reviewed journal articles in academic careers is not diminishing. However, they also noted that authors within the social sciences, humanities and arts were among the most likely to feel that depositing works in an open access repository (OAR) was definitely worthwhile.Footnote 36

Wanting to further examine the level and comparative status of academic consumer research in Canada, Industry Canada commissioned Science-Metrix to provide a bibliometric analysis of peer-reviewed journals. The objectives of the study were to examine the quantity of published Canadian academic work on consumer issues research, and the split between consumer-interest and commercial-interest work, and then to compare these numbers to those in other leading countries in this field. The bibliometric study covered the period from 1996 to 2007 and was based on an assessment of research output published in peer-reviewed papers indexed in the Scopus database.Footnote 37 In the absence of discipline-specific terminology, the Science-Metrix methodology also relied on a "consumer" only search.

An imperfect working definition of research concerned with consumer issues

The Science-Metrix report (Archambault et al. 2008) occurred at an early stage of Industry Canada's academic consumer interest research project. At that time, the term "consumer issues research" was used to define the focus of the work. Defining the field and delimiting the core set of papers to be used was one of the main challenges faced early on in the Science-Metrix work. An operational definition was adopted, with limitations compared to the CIR definition used in this Updat—for example:

  • Focus was given to the Industry Canada mandate, and issues linked with health and food were largely set aside whenever possible; and,
  • The need to capture contributions from long-standing CIR-related disciplines (e.g., home economics) was not explicitly acknowledged and targeted in that preliminary work.

The bibliographic analysis nonetheless provides an initial glimpse into the CIR developed in Canada. Since that time, a number of comments have been received regarding the issue of conceptual slippage in this multidisciplinary field and the need to clarify the consumer-related terms developed by some long-standing disciplines. McGregor 2012 provides a review of this academic background.

The study concluded that Canada had some degree of specialization in consumer issues research, ranking 9th among the leading countries in the field (see Figure 3). In order to estimate the proportion of policy-relevant papers, the abstracts of a sample of these consumer issues papers were further analyzed to categorize them as relevant to policy, business or general interest in consumer issues research, or whether they were outside of the field.Footnote 38 Based on this attempt to quantify the distribution of CIR papers, Canadian researchers appear to publish a much smaller proportion of their papers on issues related to public policy compared to other leading countries—there was a greater emphasis on the commercial aspects of CIR in Canada.Footnote 39

This is similar to the trend previously noted with respect to consumer-related university courses where there was an emphasis on courses concerned with the consumer marketplace issues such as how and why consumers purchase goods or services (under Programs in consumer studies/sciences).

Figure 3: Specialization in Consumer Issues Research by Country, 1996–2007


Figure 3 Specialization in Consumer Issues Research by Country, 1996–2007

Specialization Index (above 0 is specialized)Footnote 40

Source: Reproduced from Archambault et al. 2008.

Description of figure 3

This chart presents various countries' specialization in consumer issues research, for the period 1996 to 2007. It uses the Specialization Index developed in the Science-Metrix 2008 report. An index above 0 implies that a country is more specialized in consumer issues research.

Canada had some degree of specialization in consumer issues research, ranking 9th among the leading countries in the field re: specialization index (SI).

Singapore and Denmark were the most specialized.

The index value for each of the country presented on the chart is:

Countries' specialization in consumer issues research, for the period 1996 to 2007
Country Index value
Singapore 0.57
Denmark 0.46
Netherlands 0.36
Republic of Korea 0.35
United States 0.35
New Zealand 0.35
Australia 0.33
Belgium 0.30
Canada 0.26
Norway 0.26
Austria 0.24
Spain 0.20
Greece 0.19
United Kingdom 0.11
Sweden 0.08
Finland -0.01
France -0.01
Switzerland -0.02
Israel -0.09
Italy -0.21
Brazil -0.38
Germany -0.40
India -0.42
Japan -0.56
China -0.81

As we have seen, there are a number of indications that a significant level of Canadian academic CIR exists. However, there are challenges in identifying it across a range of disciplines and publication outlets, and its focus may not be on the public policy issues that are the subject of this Update. This does not imply that the other angles of research are irrelevant—insights from the commercial perspective can also be useful to the making of public policy if they reflect, at least in part, the interests of consumers. A number of other contributions could therefore likely be identified, upon further examination, and would enhance the scope of CIR in Canada.


Footnote 17

Guelph University has a Master of Science/ Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies program. Université Laval offers a "Baccalauréat en sciences de la consommation" and a "Certificat en sciences de la consommation" and, since the Fall 2011 session, a « Maîtrise en agroéconomie–consommation ».

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Footnote 18

For example, in their review of 1967-2007 feature articles published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, James and Cude 2009 reported difficulties in assigning an academic department to authors because of such nomenclature issues.

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Footnote 19

See information on the 2011 program.

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Footnote 20

They examined 58 of a possible 102 courses from 14 university programs.

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Footnote 21

The more detailed 1997 study by McGregor and McDonald has not been repeated.

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Footnote 22

Research assistance was provided by Laura Tryssenaar, education consultant, in the winter of 2007-2008. In this work, course calendars were reviewed to provide trends analysis.

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Footnote 23

Another 326 courses had 'consumer or consommateur' somewhere in the course description, but were not considered in the context of Industry Canada's summary analysis.

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Footnote 24

Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Electronic Commerce, Chair in Social Justice, Equity and Diversity, and Canada Research Chair in Consumer Behaviour.

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Footnote 25

See Canada Research Chairs' database.

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Footnote 26

For example, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law, and Canada Research Chair in Information Technology Management.

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Footnote 27

The keyword search queries tested by Archambault et al 2008 further illustrate the difficulties in identifying CIR in the absence of a discipline-specific tag: "In a field like CIR, this balancing act rapidly becomes much more of an art form than hard science. Choosing between recall and precision is not an easy decision, and several keyword queries were developed and tested in attempts to increase the recall without compromising precision. None of the queries tested during this study were highly selective, meaning that they invariably retrieved a large number of false positives and exerted an unacceptable toll on precision.".

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Footnote 28

The federal government proactively discloses information on contracts over $10,000, but some research projects done under contract by academic researchers for government agencies fall under that threshold. Another challenge to the identification of CIR-specific contracts lies in the pre-determined work categories that use broad terms, such as "management consulting" or "research contracts" (the latter being used for various research, not only work completed by academics).

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Footnote 29

See Fonds de recherche du Québec — Société et culture.

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Footnote 30

See Fondation Claude Masse.

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Footnote 31

The Canadian Home Economics Foundation (a non-profit organization supporting home economics and family and consumer economics research) has begun to archive back issues of the Canadian Home Economics Journal.

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Footnote 32

Industry Canada noted such comments through various informal discussions with Canadian academics from across the country whose work involved CIR-related research.

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Footnote 33

See JRC—Journal of Research for Consumers Web site.

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Footnote 34

See SSRN—Social Science Research Network (SSRN) eLibrary.

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Footnote 35

The eJournal is structured along the following five topics: Consumer Credit & Payment Issues, Enforcement of Consumer Laws, Miscellaneous Consumer Matters, Other Issues Involving the Sale of Goods or Services to Consumers, Regulation of Information & Privacy Issues Involving Consumers.

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Footnote 36

"As an illustration, one social sciences, humanities & arts workshop participant, familiar with RePEc [Research Papers in Economics] and SSRN (both subject-based repositories), explained that by using OAR [open access repository] individually or in combination one could gain recognition for a body of work rather than for individual publications." (Fry et al. 2011).

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Footnote 37

"Scopus, launched in November 2004, is the largest abstract and citation database containing both peer-reviewed research literature and quality web sources";. The CIR-related titles found in Scopus, while not comprehensive of all CIR work, include Advances in Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Affairs, and Journal of Consumer Policy. Another limitation of this database is that it only includes references in English, and therefore excludes scientific journals published in French in Québec and which may count CIR-relevant articles.

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Footnote 38

The protocol used in the context of the Science-Metrix work defined each category as follows:

  1. Consumer Policy Research–Research that is undertaken with the primary intent of better protecting or advancing consumers' interests, be it by better understanding consumers' interactions with the marketplace in terms of vulnerabilities or benefits, analysing consumer legislation, regulations and policies, or other similar policy work.
  2. Consumer Business Research– Research that is undertaken with the primary intent of understanding consumers and their interactions with the marketplace for the purposes of being able to benefit from that understanding for a commercial benefit.
  3. General Consumer Research– Research undertaken to understand consumers for any other reason, sociological, anthropological, historical or macro-economic.
  4. Not Relevant– Research that may use "consumer" or "customer" concepts and analytical models (e.g., customer relationship management– CRM) but whose focus is not primarily consumers but other third parties (e.g. businesses dealing with each other); research about consumers where they are not acting as independent agents (e.g. consumers as patients in the health care system) or research focused on protecting consumers in the context of health or safety concerns (e.g. food and product safety).

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Footnote 39

According to Archambault et al. 2008, Canadian authors publish about 30% fewer papers in this area than what is observed, on average, for consumer issues research in other countries. More precisely, about 20% of consumer issues research papers by Canadian researchers were deemed to be relevant to public policy, compared with an average of 28% internationally. Canadian researchers appeared to publish more on business issues (60% of their consumer-relevant papers) than researchers internationally (49% of the papers). See the report for notes on the methodology.

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Footnote 40

"Specialization index (SI): The SI is an indicator of research intensity in a given entity (e.g., a country or an institution) for a given research area (e.g., a field or subfield), relative to the intensity in a reference entity (e.g., the world). (…) SI = (Xs/Xt) / (Ns/Nt), where:

  • Xs = Papers from entity X in a given research area (e.g., papers by Sweden in CIR);
  • Xt = Papers from entity X in a reference set of papers (e.g., total eligible papers by Sweden);
  • Ns = Papers from reference entity N in a given research area (e.g., world papers in CIR);
  • Nt= Papers from reference entity N in a reference set of papers (e.g., total eligible world papers)." (Archambault et al. 2008)

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