China's Scientific Output Rises—To Some Consternation

The number of Chinese papers published in leading science journals has risen dramatically over the past decade, according to a new report from the China Association for Science and Technology. But the Chinese media are hardly celebrating.

Since 2000, the report says, the number of papers by scholars based in China published in Science Citation Index (SCI)-listed journals has quadrupled. The jump happened as China overtook other countries in output. In 2007, it passed Japan to become second in the world—behind only the United States—in number of papers published in indexed journals. But the report dwells more on distribution than on overall success, pointing out that while some of the increase in research output benefited Chinese publications, the vast majority of new papers went to SCI-listed foreign journals.

This is no accident. In recent years, the Chinese government has urged scientists to publish in reputable English-language journals, offering promotions and other rewards as an incentive. Many Chinese universities, meanwhile, have become keen on boosting their showing in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's ranking of world universities, which, though itself a Chinese invention, heavily weights publication in Science and Nature.

The report's authors note a downside to China's rising international profile. The document cautions that if policy changes are not adopted, it will become increasingly difficult for Chinese journals to attract stellar research. And the Chinese press hints that publishing the country's best stuff overseas is damaging to Chinese scholarship. An article in China Youth Daily, reprinted by the state news agency Xinhua, called the outflow of research to foreign journals "embarrassing."

Chinese scientists themselves are more sanguine. "The recent increase in papers published outside China should be cherished rather than criticized," Ming-Wei Wang, a pharmacologist at Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, told ScienceInsider. While an increase in research output is not necessarily a sign of quality, he says, "More and more high-impact work has been generated in China or in collaboration with Chinese institutions."

Wang, who directs China's National Center for Drug Screening, oversees research on drug development and other topics. He opposes any measures that would constrain where his institute's scientists publish. "It is up to them to determine when, where, and in what format to publish," he says. Asking researchers to submit studies to low-quality journals, he argues, "would be a recipe for scientific suicide."