Co-authorship Network Analysis: A Powerful Tool for Strategic Planning of Research, Development and Capacity Building Programs on Neglected Diseases
New approaches and tools were needed to support the strategic planning, implementation and management of a Program launched by the Brazilian Government to fund research, development and capacity building on neglected tropical diseases with strong focus on the North, Northeast and Center-West regions of the country where these diseases are prevalent. Based on demographic, epidemiological and burden of disease data, seven diseases were selected by the Ministry of Health as targets of the initiative. Publications on these diseases by Brazilian researchers were retrieved from international databases, analyzed and processed with text-mining tools in order to standardize author- and institution's names and addresses. Co-authorship networks based on these publications were assembled, visualized and analyzed with social network analysis software packages. Network visualization and analysis generated new information, allowing better design and strategic planning of the Program, enabling decision makers to characterize network components by area of work, identify institutions as well as authors playing major roles as central hubs or located at critical network cut-points and readily detect authors or institutions participating in large international scientific collaborating networks. Traditional criteria used to monitor and evaluate research proposals or R&D Programs, such as researchers' productivity and impact factor of scientific publications, are of limited value when addressing research areas of low productivity or involving institutions from endemic regions where human resources are limited. Network analysis was found to generate new and valuable information relevant to the strategic planning, implementation and monitoring of the Program. It afforded a more proactive role of the funding agencies in relation to public health and equity goals, to scientific capacity building objectives and a more consistent engagement of institutions and authors from endemic regions based on innovative criteria and parameters anchored on objective scientific data. The selection and prioritization of research proposals is always a challenge, particularly when addressing neglected tropical diseases, as the scientific communities are relatively small, funding is usually limited and the disparity between the science and technology capacity of different countries and regions is enormous. When the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology of Brazil decided to launch an R&D program on neglected diseases for which at least 30% of the Program's resources were supposed to be invested in institutions and authors from the poorest regions of Brazil, it became clear to us that new strategies and approaches would be required. Social network analysis of co-authorship networks is one of the new approaches we are exploring to develop new tools to help policy-/decision-makers and academia jointly plan, implement, monitor and evaluate investments in this area. Publications retrieved from international databases provide the starting material. After standardization of names and addresses of authors and institutions with text mining tools, networks are assembled and visualized using social network analysis software. This study enabled the development of innovative criteria and parameters, allowing better strategic planning, smooth implementation and strong support and endorsement of the Program by key stakeholders.