Big Pharma, Little Science?
Big Pharma, Little Science? A bibliometric perspective on big pharma’s R&D decline

Ismael Rafols, Michael M. Hopkins, Jarno Hoekman,Josh Siepel, Alice O'Hare, Antonio Perianes-Rodríguez and Paul Nightingale


There is a widespread perception that pharmaceutical R&D is facing a productivity crisis characterised by stagnation in the numbers of new drug approvals in the face of increasing R&D costs. This study explores pharmaceutical R&D dynamics by examining the publication activities of all R&D laboratories of the major European and US pharmaceutical firms during the period 1995-2009. The empirical findings present an industry in transformation. In the first place, we observe a decline of the total number of publications by large firms. Second, we show a relative increase of their external collaborations suggesting a tendency to outsource, and a diversification of the disciplinary base, in particular towards computation, health services and more clinical approaches. Also evident is a more pronounced decline in publications by both R&D laboratories located in Europe and by firms with European headquarters. Finally, while publications by big pharma in emerging economies sharply increase, they remain extremely low compared with those in developed countries. In summary, the trend in this transformation is one of a gradual decrease in internal research efforts and increasing reliance on external research. These empirical insights support the view that large pharmaceutical firms are increasingly becoming ‘networks integrators’ rather than the prime locus of drug discovery.

Working paper available here

List of complementary files
  •  Complementary File 1: List of firm’s subsidiaries, acquisitions and mergers
  •  Complementary File 2: Publication trends by firm
  •  Complementary File 3: Web of Science Categories (WCs) of publication
  •  Complementary File 4: Specialisation science maps: aggregate and by firm
  •  Complementary File 5: Publication and collaboration trends by region and country