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For most scientists, publishing an article in a prestigious journal is likely to be recognized and rewarded with attention from one’s peers.

In China, however, scientists are also rewarded with cash, and the more prestigious the journal, the larger the sum, according to a new paper published in the April issue of Learned Publishing.

In their article, “The outflow of academic papers from China: why is it happening and can it be stemmed?” authors Jufang Shao and Huiyun Shen from the  Zhejiang University College of Medicine illuminate the academic reward structure in place in China and what is most interesting are the details.

Because of limited international circulation of Chinese journals, there is a real push to have one’s work appear in an international index, such as the Science Citation Index (SCI), Engineering Index (EI), or the Index to Scientific & Technical Proceedings (ISTP). But it doesn’t stop there. Institutions like Zhejiang University rely on a detailed accounting sheet that lists specific monetary rewards for articles according to the journal’s Impact Factor.

For the readers of this blog, I have converted Shao and Shen’s table into US dollars.

  • Indexed in ISTP — $92
  • Indexed in EI — $275
  • Impact factor < 1 — $306
  • 1 ≥ IF < 3 —$458
  • 3 ≥ IF < 5 — $611
  • 5 ≥ IF < 10 — $764
  • IF ≥ 10 — $2,139
  • Published in Science or Nature $30,562

While Shao and Shen do not report the salary ranges of Chinese scientists — if anyone can comment on the relative value of these payments to authors, please add a comment below — they do describe how the payments work as incentives for publishing:

The theory is simple and pure economics. Money motivates: pay people to publish in good journals and they try to do so. Monetary rewards are the best; money is a universal reinforcer.

For a country undergoing exceptional scientific and economic growth, providing monetary incentives tied to publication may appear as if free-market economics has taken over the mindset of administrators. Their system clearly and directly rewards scientists who are both productive and publish high-quality work.

However, the system is focused entirely on a single dimension for judging quality — the Impact Factor — and for that reason, we should be worried about how pursuit of this goal may result in distortion and corruption of the publication system.  In a 1999 piece in Science, Georg Franck warned that when scientists’ success depends too heavily on citation counts, they will find ways to game the system. He writes:

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?

In recent years, Chinese journals have come under scrutiny by government officials for a whole suite of issues (rampant plagiarism, low-quality, erratic publication, and corruption in their author-pays model). Officials have reported in Nature that many of these “weak” journals will be terminated, with hopes of strengthening a small number of Chinese-based publishing houses.

The Shao and Shen article is both fascinating and quite chilling. While I’m not against free-market economics or providing incentives to scientists to be productive and generate high-quality work, I’m concerned about how providing direct incentives to scientists may ultimately corrupt the norms of science.  Such a direct compensation model would move science toward a model that more resembles our financial system, where influence is controlled more by financial might than by bright new ideas.

Perhaps this is already happening.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


37 Thoughts on "Paying for Impact: Does the Chinese Model Make Sense?"

It’s great to see some real numbers for this, but they do seem lower than ones I’ve heard anecdotally: I’ve specifically heard $100k mentioned for Science/Nature.

[Source: This was from a European scientist who said she/he’d been asked, after publishing in Science, by a Chinese colleague “So, did you get $100,000?”]

One of our editors heard the same ($100K) figure whilst traveling in China last year.

The story she heard was it is a “dollar” amount per point of impact factor.

Possibly it differs from institution to institution?

It would be helpful if one (or more) of the high-impact (HI) journal publishers/editors would comment as to whether submissions from Chinese scientists now differ in any significant way as they seek acceptance in an HI journal. Is their work worthy of your journal or is it mediocre but still sent hoping for a big reward? Do you find their papers “clogging” up your pipeline as it were?

To answer your questions, ten years ago (before online submission) we received next to zero research papers from [mainland] China. There was always a small but steady flow from Hong Kong.

By five years ago 3% of our submissions were from China and Hong Kong. #9 on the list.

They have reached number 3 on the list, with 5% of the submissions. Double the raw number of manuscripts from five years ago.

While I would say we get a fair number of papers, they are not flooding our in box.

Yes, #1 & 2 are the US and the UK.

Pam Miller

Great article Phil. I agree whole heartedly that “incentives to scientists to be productive and generate high-quality work” are a good thing. However, I share your concerns about linking monetary rewards to Impact Factor. It just raises a red flag for me. Researchers are already under enough pressure to publish. At the risk of sounding incredibly cynical and pessimistic, when money is introduced into the equation it can and does lead some to succumb to greed, resulting in plagiarism and other unethical practices in order to “publish at any cost” in these high Impact Factor journals. IMO it is just another example of Impact Factor being used in a way it should not be. The hammer was invented so we’d have a tool to more efficiently drive nails down, not so we could smash people over the head with it.

While linking incentives to scientists seems like a good idea, aren’t there many underlying concerns surrounding it? I know, at least in paleontology from China, there have been many forgeries and fake fossils thrown around, and some have even been published on. Whether the scientists who wrote the articles were aware of that or not I am not sure, but it still occurred. Many people have stated that any paleontologist going to China must be fully aware of this as well, since these forgeries are often rampant in their museums and it often takes a highly trained eye to catch them.

Really what it might come down to is that, with direct compensation, I worry that many will care less if the scientific work they have done is correct, and simply go for the most significant or outrageous article. The more newsworthy the better, regardless if ifs all true or accurate. While some would say that the review process should catch all of that, and it certainly should, that is not and will not always be the case. Anyone who has published knows that, just as the author(s) can make mistakes, so too can the reviewer(s) and editor(s). Its relatively easy to accidentally miss something, and with direct compensation, it would be easier more someone to, say, grease someone else’s wheels. While the compensation is good, I worry that direct compensation will only lead to more and bigger problems, regardless of whether its based on impact factor, number of publications, lengths, etc.

There are definitely cultural issues to be aware of… but there are plenty of examples of scientific misconduct in the West too. Jan Hendrik Schon anyone?

My concern level will shoot up the day we hear that an Editor or reviewer for a top-tier journal has been bribed in return for accepting papers from Chinese authors.

Is this a paranoid thought?

Probably. But it’s only paranoia until it happens . . . then it becomes prediction.

Financial incentives usually make performance on creative tasks worse, not better. There’s a lot of evidence that pay improves performance for a small set of rote tasks. Dan Pink’s book Drive discusses this, and Pink gives a nice summary in his 2009 TED talk.

It is rather ironic that the Chinese scholarly system picks up this practice. Obviously for the Chinese government success at a larger scale (improving the weight of Chinese scholarly contribution) seems to justify the means of rewarding individuals with money.

I wrote about this in connection with “China’s Copyright Dilemma” in Learned Publishing, October 2008: Here is a relevant excerpt:

This low level of civic responsibility combines with another Confucian-derived value to exacerbate the problem even further: Chinese consider copying, not as a disreputable or dishonest activity, but as the traditional way for the individual to learn and gain mastery of a field. In China, students are taught that to become better writers they need to memorize and imitate the language and style of heralded past masters; such appreciation for the achievements of a long cultural tradition is supposed to help them become more creative, too. It is not just students who are imbued with such ideas. Many of their professors (at least 60 percent, according to the government-owned China Daily) practice plagiarism in the belief that emulation of experts in their fields is the way to advance in their careers. Plagiarism is further encouraged by a system that pays professors based on the number, rather than quality, of the articles they publish.

The article is interesting, but the concern about payment for publication is open to debate. Many commenters seem to equate payment for publication to forgeries, plagiarism, etc. That linkage seems plausible at first blush, but is problematic and is expressed too strongly in my view. First, there are institutions in the US that pay their employees for publishing as well — the amounts are not this high, but they are monetary incentives nevertheless. Thus, the practice is not singularly Chinese, and I have not heard any (or many) arguments that this has led to the problems indicated here. The second issue is that there are many rewards for publication in highly ranked journals, and even if these rewards are not directly monetary, they end up affecting the person’s finances (in a positive way) nevertheless. So, the reward system is there to be abused if one chooses to. Finally, a substantial number of plagiarism cases that I have come across are from outside China. I think the singular focus on China is problematic.

I completely agree. The issues surrounding misconduct are not limited to China and it was not my intent to portray it that way. While there are other cases of direct compensation for publication, I have not seen anything so clear and defined as in the Learned Publishing article where citation impact is part of the calculation.

If authors do not receive direct compensation for publication, the dynamics of the system must move through an abstract intermediary — namely prestige. By publishing well and receiving peer-recognition, an author builds prestige. That prestige can be transferred for real-world goods, like a job at an elite research institution, a promotion, tenure, grants, hungry graduate students willing to work for you, positions on editorial boards, etc. But because prestige acts as an intermediary toward delayed gratification, a scientist will do almost anything to protect his prestige. Having one’s article later retracted on claims of misconduct has serious implications for doing future science.

For this reason, I generally prefer that scientists work through an indirect system of compensation than a direct one. This assumes, however, that institutions pay scientists a living wage, rather than consider them to operate like salesmen and pay them entirely on commission.

The reason that it is a particular problem in China, as my article points out, is that plagiarism is reinforced by the Confucian value system that emphasized the path to success as involving copying the master. Similar value systems elsewhere may lead to the same result, but the linkage in China is quite straightforward.

I’ve heard that Chinese scientists in fields that name new organisms (specifically paleontology, which is my field, but I would assume this would extend to organismal biology, too) that researchers are also paid for each new organism they name. You can guess what this probably does for the validity of the taxa named…

The Learned Publishing piece is an interesting article, and Phil’s blog is typically thought provoking but I honestly ask how different is this from US academics getting tenure track on the back of a Science or Nature publication?

As always (in my experience) the Chinese are just a bit more straight-forward about it.

Be afraid, US and Western Europe, the Chinese are coming. In fact, they’ve already arrived. The more important fact is that Chinese investment in R&D and basic science has tripled in the last 10 years with a further four-fold increase planned by 2020.

The response of the Western economies is to contrain library budgets…

Quite different, in fact, because U.S. culture does not support plagiarism the way Chinese culture does.

Science is an international pursuit, although its normative behaviors have been shaped largely through the values of the West. The rise of Chinese science publishing –whether you support their practices of rewarding scientists or not– will ultimately change the values and behaviors of scientists elsewhere. It has to.

I hope this won’t be by Western scientists emulating the practice of plagiarism!

This whole situation (the Chinese paying their scientists like this) has the potential to be a big problem. Besides the whole bribery issue, they are under a lot of pressure to report exactly what [they think] the top journals want to hear, rather than the truth. Somewhat like the pharmaceutical-clinical-trial image problem.

When there is a lot of money involved, with the cultural and language barriers on top of that, it’s hard to trust the authors.

The Chinese want to do good science and good clinical research. They have the potential, patients and money. But they don’t as yet know how to do it according to Western standards. It’s going to take some time for them to be included in the community.

We all need to be part of their education process. Our journal is sending editors to China and hosting Chinese physicians in the US. We explain what a good study is and what journals (particularly ours) is looking for. I know editors of other journals are doing the same.

From an editorial office point of view we need to do everything we can to increase the “trust” factor.

What’s wrong with incenting high quality research? Nothing – we need global warming and cancer fixed as soon as possible. The discussion here points to the absurdity of using a single number (here and in China) to measure researcher productivity.

I think it’ll be interesting to see how this affects author-pays OA publications, particularly PLoS ONE with its distinctive combination of high IF and high acceptance rate.

If I’m a Chinese scientist, I’m thinking that a $600 bonus if I get accepted times a 70% acceptance rate means I get paid an average of $420 every time I submit something to PLoS ONE.

Good point. Also remember that PLoS has policy that allows authors to claim a “no questions asked” waiver of fees if they claim they cannot pay.

Is paying for these specific results — publication in high impact factor journals or inclusion in a major index — equivalent to paying for high quality research? In some fields IF may be correlated with quality. In others, it’s a meaningless measure or worse.

IF already leads to “distortion and corruption of the publication system” as well of research itself. The money simply exacerbates these distortions. Not only is this an incentive to inflate, distort, or fake results, as noted by some comments, but it also is an incentive to drive research to areas that are so-called “charismatic,” because that is a major criterion for high impact journals. We promote science and publishing that values relative popularity rather than relative increase of knowledge within the reasonable confines of the relevant discipline. IF increasingly is used as a simplistic measure by management and policy decision makers to avoid difficult work. The monetary incentive system is a patently brainless approach to rewarding people who conform to and validate that process. Perhaps there should be an equivalent reward for someone who debunks a publication, even if the debunking is in a lower-tier journal.

Though I take it with some healthy skepticism, there is (below) an interesting intersecting view of research publications. It and published and web responses to it make for thought-provoking reading.
“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”
Perhaps we can take some comfort that the author considers “financial and other interest and prejudice” to be only one of a list of conditions that relate to the probability of a finding being “true.”

As editor of a scientific journal I find that in the past few years, papers from China have not only increased in quantity but also improved in quality. The standard of English is certainly much better, but more importantly the content has improved. Chinese scientists are getting better in defining interesting questions, better at gathering evidence and better in putting forward their arguments. I wonder if they are hiring experts to help them write their papers. If so, why not?

Modern science has gone through many ‘crises’ involving money. In the beginning scientists were amateurs. Then scientists got paid to do what they were supposed to do for love of knowledge. In the beginning, journals were published on a non-profit basis. Then publishing houses moved in and made profits from scientific publication; libraries had to pay dearly for journals and scientists had to pay to get published. Now some journals are paying reviewers for their reviews and that is perhaps more scary.

I do not support the idea of giving scientists cash rewards for publishing, on top of their pay, but I do not think such rewards will undermine the integrity of the scientific publication system. We have editors and peer reviewers in place to safeguard our journals. Journals that let their standards drop will see their impact factor erode. The impact factor is driving up the standard of journals and making it harder, not easier, to get published.

Thanks for your comment. The real harm of direct compensation is that it creates a poor match between the manuscript and the journal to which it has been submitted. In an ideal world, authors understand the relevance and quality of their article and submit it to the appropriate journal, which after a round of review and revision, ultimately accepts the manuscript for submission. Monetary and policy incentives (like the Chinese model) encourage inappropriate targets for manuscript submission, meaning that journals invest time and energy –not to mention the work of voluntary reviewers– into the manuscript only to reject it. If the author is encouraged to select the next highest journal, this process will go on and on until the manuscript cascades down and is accepted in an appropriate journal. Since the author only is paying with time, the true costs of the system are borne by the journals, its editors, and the institutions that support its peer reviewers.

So, I’m not arguing that the Chinese model undermines the integrity of the publication system, only that it makes it much less efficient and much more costly. Considering that China is the second largest producer of scientific papers –and may surpass the US in several years– the effect of such policy changes will be huge.

Of course, the typical model for scholarly book publishing is to pay the peer reviewers and to pay authors a royalty also. That doesn’t seem to have corrupted the system for book publishing.

Someone asked about Chinese salaries. I’ll give numbers in rmb, around 6.25 to the dollar last time I checked (rmb is rising; ten years ago it was pegged at 8.29 to the $) so 1000 rmb ~= $160.

A waitress I knew thought 2000 a month plus some free meals and a bunk bed, four to a room, in an apartment the boss paid for was good money. That was in a high-end restaurant in Shanghai; she’d have made much less elsewhere. A new graduate B Eng from a good but not stellar school considered 3000 a month to start for doing quality control in a Samsung factory an excellent offer.

The university I was at (a top technical school) advertised for Chinese PhDs who had lived abroad and had substantial research records to return to China, at 200,000 a year plus 2500 a month as housing allowance. That is an excellent offer by Chinese standards, but a Chinese academic friend said it was a baseline; if they really wanted you it could be negotiated upward.

Also note that in many Chinese universities, the degree requirements for a PhD include two papers in indexed international journals.

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