The Rise of Chinese Scientific Publishing

Science is big business in China.

In addition to investing heavily in industrial and scientific R&D, the Chinese government has been offering attractive monetary incentives to scientists to publish their work in good journals.

The bigger the journal, the bigger the monetary reward, and we aren’t talking pocket money.

For publishing in Science or Nature, scientists at Institutions like Zhejiang University can look forward to a bonus of $30, 562.  A large sum, especially considering that the average annual worker’s wage in China in 2012 was around $7872 in Purchasing Power Parity dollars (where one PPP dollar is equal to one US dollar spent in the US).

The push to publish in big journals is clearly having an effect. Nature reported in their Publishing Index 2013, that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is now their 6th biggest global contributor, a dramatic rise from 12th position in 2012. They also named China as one of their top 5 countries to watch in this 2012 report.



Free-market economics in science may sound positive – who wouldn’t be motivated by more money to conduct a greater quantity of high-quality research?

However, this system is focused on just one measure of ‘quality’ – The Impact Factor.

Impact Factors are the most widely used measure of a journal’s influence. They are calculated using the number of citations papers receive annually, divided by the total number of papers published by that journal that year.

Impact Factors are hugely significant when scientists are choosing which publication they want their work to be published in. But, the pursuit of citation counts has long been described as a negative move for science, as many manipulate the system to increase the number of citations their work receives.

In 1999, Georg Frank wrote in Science,

“There are ways of accumulating citations that have little to do with scientific value. The simplest way of circumventing the hurdle of productivity enhancement is the formation of citation cartels. One’s account of citations can also be augmented without enhancing one’s productivity by playing off one’s power as an editor or referee. Why not suppress papers submitted for publication as long as the authors do not understand to whom they owe a citation?”

Science publications in China: Quantity over quality? 

In 2010, a damning report on the quality of some 5000 + Chinese language journals led to the ‘termination’ of many weaker publications.

Li Dongdong, vice-minister of state and deputy director of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) which controls all publications in China, said that there were “severe” problems in Chinese publishing – with “a big gap between quality and quantity.”

Almost a third of Chinese language journals were campus publications, riddled with plagiarism and poor quality research. They made their money through host institution funding and charging authors per-page publishing fees.

Chinese language journals have limited international circulation, which has made Impact Factors and appearing in an international index, such as the Science Citation Index (SCI), the Engineering Index (EI), or the Index to Scientific & Technical Proceedings (ISTP), hugely important.

Chinese language journals have long been shunned by China’s top researchers in favour of international journals, which are more widely read and have greater prestige. In fact, in November 2009, Chinese scientists became the second most prolific publishers in international science journals, second only to the US.

In order to compete, many Chinese journals are now publishing in English to increase their Impact Factor, many with great success.

Why is it so important that Chinese research is read internationally?

There is a huge demand for information on science in China, not least because of the business opportunities which could stem from two of the country’s greatest research strengths – optics and materials, but also because overlooking data from Chinese medical research could affect public health.

Though the Chinese government and GAPP still support Chinese language publications, there is clearly a strong desire for China to be recognised for its science internationally. Currently, this cannot be achieved in Chinese language journals where works often languish uncited and unread outside of China.

Does this mean is it right to offer direct monetary incentives to Chinese scientists to publish in international journals? For the economy and international recognition, yes. For the good of scientific discovery, maybe not – what if scientists stopped taking risks because they were not guaranteed a good result or people thought the idea was crazy? Not all scientific investments make sense on paper.

Philip Davis, contributor at the Scholarly Kitchen says, “Publishers should be looking at forms of indirect payment that feed into the value system of science, and not forms of direct payment that fed in the value system of corporate culture.”

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