Article review: Bridging fields – a comparative study of the presence of think tanks

15 December 2020

The article by Planells-Artigot, Ortigosa-Blanch and Martí-Sánchez provides a bibliometric analysis of studies that mention think tanks over a 35-year period (from 1985 to 2019). The analysis was done by quantitatively assessing studies that mention ‘think tanks’ in their titles and abstracts using the Web of Science.

Main findings

The paper shows that there has been a steady increase in the number of studies on think tanks since 2005. And starting in 2012, more than 100 items have been published per year.

Similarly, there has been a constant increase in citations, demonstrating a recent and growing interest in think tanks among academics.

In terms of study areas, most publications come from the social sciences, particularly from government and law, international relations, business economics and public administration.

The top four authors dealing with think tanks are Donald Abelson,+ James McGann,+ Hartwig Pautz+ and Diane Stone+ – social science scholars, each with over ten publications on think tanks.

The top cited authors are Riley Dunlap+ and Aaron M. McCright,+ two sociologists whose work dealing with think tanks is particularly oriented towards political processes related to environmental issues.

The three most cited documents on think tanks are all co-authored by Riley Dunlap and examine conservative movements with environmental skepticism in the US.

The most productive institutions in terms of publications are all in the US or the UK. The top five countries where most research on think tanks takes place are the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Germany – countries where there is a longer tradition of think tanks.

Nonetheless, there has been a recent increase in studies published in China and there have been publications in a total of 85 countries across the world.

My review

The main caveat of this paper is that the methodology used to measure think tank studies leads to the inclusion of documents that may not be directly contributing to the field.

By including any article from any discipline that has ‘think tanks’ in its title or abstract, the paper draws a sample in which documents that do not study think tanks are included.

As a result, the paper identifies ‘top authors’ who are not really studying think tanks and leaves out other authors who are. For instance, Thomas Medvetz+ (whose 2012 book ‘Think Tanks in America’, has over 500 citations according to Google Scholar) is not considered a ‘top ten author on think tanks’ based on the article’s methodology.

In this sense, one problematic finding is that some of the top authors – in terms of number of publications – work in the health sciences. Planells-Artigot, Ortigosa-Blanch and Martí-Sánchez explain that several of these publications are the result of ad hoc meetings among stakeholders and experts to assess public health issues. The analysis of the literature on think tanks would, therefore, benefit from removing these documents from the sample.

The article’s main contribution is its overview of the top authors, areas of research, institutions and countries dealing with studies on think tanks, highlighting social scientists as the main contributors to this research, with the top scholars based in the US, UK and Canada. It also demonstrates that the number of think tanks has grown in these first decades of the 21st century – and so has the field of studies examining them, with a surge in analysis of think tanks in China since 2015.

All in all, therefore, as long as the methodological caveat is taken into account, this is a good introduction to anyone interested in learning more about the think tank literature.