Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Dr. Jie Xu, a professor at the School of Information Management, Wuhan University of China. She is also a Senior Academic Associate of CIBER Research Ltd. Her research interests are scholarly communication and information behavior. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jie has not been able to return to her school (which sits in the heart of Wuhan) for nearly two months. In that time she has become accustomed to teaching online in a virtual classroom.
Last week, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Education announced two policy documents which triggered wide discussion among researchers across the country. According to these documents, the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) and Science Citation Index (SCI) should not be used as the most important criteria when recruiting and promoting personnel. Universities and research institutes are not allowed to provide monetary incentives for publishing in SCI-indexed journals. SCI-related metrics are prohibited from being used for university or discipline rankings.
Chinese researchers were not surprised at the release of the new policies. The year 2016 marked the beginning of a series of reforms in China around research evaluation. In that year, President Xi Jinping announced a reform of the personnel system in universities and research institutions during the 29th Meeting of the Central Leading Team for Comprehensively Deepening Reform. He said that evaluation of professional titles should not be based on publications only. Since then, a series of new policy documents on metric-driven scholarly systems were released. Government at all levels, universities, institutions, and public funders have made great efforts to reverse the ‘SCI-supremacy’ phenomenon which has been intensively criticized for its negative influence on boosting inferior quality paper production, making researchers slaves of metrics, and leading to research misconduct in the past two decades.
2016 also marked a milestone when China’s total number of researchers and scholarly articles published surpassed that of the USA, making it the largest source of published research in the world. And in 2017, the total citation of papers authored by Chinese researchers ranked second in the world. China is ahead of the schedule set by the “Guidelines for the Middle- and Long-Term National Science and Technology Development Program (2006-2020)”. In this program, a goal was set for China to rank as one of the top five most-cited countries. With these goals achieved, new strategies needed to be put in place for further progress.
In 2018, a movement against papers, titles, education, and awards supremacy was jointly launched by Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, Chinese Academy of Science, and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Individual universities and national research institutions started to make action plans as the policy document provided no details on implementation. “My university stopped providing financial incentives for publishing in SCI-indexed journals since early 2019.” “’Fewer but better’ is the new rule of publishing in our field,” commented Chinese researchers on social media. An R&D policy maker from a prestigious research university in China posted, “In my university, a new ‘white list’ of journals is under discussion. More Chinese journals will be taken in. SCI/SSCI indexing and citation will be less weighted while peer review and word of mouth factors will be considered.”
The two latest policy documents are not new to Chinese researchers, but they contain more operational and detailed instructions for implementation than existing guidelines have offered. For instance, one of the documents advocates multiple appraisal criteria for different researchers. Applied research should focus on the actual contribution of the research in real life, not on the number of papers published by the researcher. In theoretical fields without immediate applications, scientists only need to produce “at most five representative works to prove their worth, and at least a third of their papers must be published in Chinese journals, if they want to apply for national level funding or awards”. As a quick response to the new representative works policy, National Natural Science Foundation of China changed its application rules for the annual Innovative Group Research Project and Foundation for Distinguished Young Scientists in 2020. Applicants are no longer required to list their indexed publications with citation scores when submitting proposals. “I’m super happy that we don’t have to fill in the annoying form, such a relief,” a candidate says.
The new policies will bring big changes, but individual researchers may have different reactions. For unestablished early career researchers lacking networks to disseminate research results, SCI-indexed journals are still an ideal publishing outlet because they are relatively fair and transparent. “We all know it is not perfect, and no metrics are perfect in practice. But at least it is fair and workable,” a bibliometric scientist says. For early career researchers, JIF is an objective and reliable indicator, on which they can compete with senior and tenured professors who are experienced in publishing and have wide connections in the field. According to the guidelines, scientists are encouraged to publish works in leading international journals such as Nature, Science and Cell, but it is very difficult for young scientists to publish in them. So less influential journals in the SCI index will still be taken into consideration. “Publishing in domestic Chinese language journals can be difficult, too,” an early career researcher explains, “Esteemed domestic journals have even higher rejection rates and longer waiting times to publish.”
PhD students’ publishing burden will be reduced because the new policies prohibit universities from requiring students to publish their research as a condition for receiving their degrees.
For senior and tenured professors, the implementation of new policies will free them from the publish-or-perish dilemma. Since quality outweighs quantity, they will be able to put more effort in high quality research which usually needs more time to yield innovative results. Senior researchers may lose some interest in publishing with less influential SCI journals, but will still strive for the top outlets and international journals published in China. Disregarding the IF and SCI/SSCI-oriented evaluation system may encourage them to disseminate research results through diverse channels in multiple ways. For example, valuable data as a research output can be published and recognized. Newly launched open access journals and academic social media can be used as alternative outlets to widely disseminate works. Senior researchers, compared to their early career peers, are more likely to get funding to cover the article processing charges (APCs), so they are more likely to try journals with a gold open access model.
Disciplinary differences can be seen too. Compared to the hard sciences, social sciences and humanities have fewer international linkages and networks, and English is not the lingua franca as it is in natural sciences. A new appraisal system which encourages publishing papers in Chinese academic journals is generally welcomed by researchers from the social sciences and humanities. As a social scientist says, “it is a favorable policy, especially for our social science. It disregards English journal-based metrics and suggests qualitative evaluation methods, such as peer review and social influence. In our field, domestic policy makers and the public are the groups that we want to influence most.” Applied science researchers also like the new movement, because they have struggled under the dominance of the SCI and JIF system as well. They recognize the new policy as a healthy development for China’s science and research. A clinician says, “I support these new policies, because they give us a bigger chance to be promoted. I cannot publish papers when I have to do two operations a day. I don’t have the time and energy to write them.”
There is no doubt that the newly released policies, the new appraisal system and new requirements for increased publication in Chinese journals will influence Chinese researchers’ publishing behavior, and that the new sets of rules have the potential to change the landscape of China’s scientific research, as well as international scholarly communication. For international publishers, these new policies present both opportunities and challenges.
If the policy is fully implemented by universities and institutes, Chinese researchers’ demand for publishing papers in low-quality journals will rapidly decrease. Journals which have gamed metrics for getting indexed or more citations will be disregarded, since the journal’s reputation and word of mouth will be more important for Chinese researchers when making publishing decisions. Predatory journals will lose their market in China, because publishing in blacklisted journals will be severely punished. Reputable and top-ranked international journals are still the best choice which will be pursued by experienced senior researchers and the competition for publishing in such journals will become fiercer.
According to the new policies, appraisal systems should focus on the originality and scientific value of the research papers. It is exactly what the peer review process does in the journal publishing workflow. For aspiring academic publishers, either Chinese or international, providing good quality peer review services is always the best strategy for surviving and developing. The new policies encourage researchers to publish or present their most important works in domestic Chinese journals with international influence and top academic conferences. This provides new market development opportunities for international publishers, collaborating with Chinese partners to publish international journals with a bigger influence. Opportunities also exist to provide professional services to Chinese universities and institutions, for example, publishing international conference proceedings, language editing, and helping Chinese authors to translate and promote works into the international market.
China is an essential part of the global research community and Chinese researchers are more and more engaged in international scientific research. Development of a healthy academic appraisal system in China will benefit the whole international academic communication ecosystem and could reshape global STM publishing.