Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Christos Petrou, founder and Chief Analyst at Scholarly Intelligence. Christos is a former analyst of the Web of Science Group at Clarivate Analytics and the Open Access portfolio at Springer Nature. A geneticist by training, he previously worked in agriculture and as a consultant for A.T. Kearney, and he holds an MBA from INSEAD.
Amid ongoing industry disruption (Plan S deliberations in Europe, a rumored executive order in the US, and contentious negotiations for PAR/RAP deals with consortia around the world), news of a changing evaluations policy by the Chinese administration is unlikely to have been welcome news for international publishers.
Anything that affects publishing habits in China has the potential to affect domestic and international publishers. According to Clarivate’s Web of Science (WoS), authors affiliated with Chinese organizations contributed to 20% of research articles and review articles (the types of content that matters the most commercially and academically) in 2018 (Figure 1). The share of China exceeds 30% for two of the top eight publishers. Moreover, China has been a key driver of content growth for many international publishers in recent years.
New policy and old habits
This post by Scholarly Kitchen resident Chef Tao Tao, captures the main points of the two documents that were issued in February. The summary sheet below contains key information from that post, hopefully without much misinterpretation.
The policy dictates a departure from evaluations based on SCI indexed journals (it refers to SCI 31 times in a rather short document). Standing for Science Citation Index Expanded, SCIE (which has replaced SCI) is the foremost index of Clarivate’s Web of Science (WoS). Journals indexed on SCIE (and those on SSCI, the index for Social Sciences) receive a JIF (Journal Impact Factor) and category ranking on an annual basis.
Chinese authors and institutions have been rewarded for publishing in SCIE journals. As shown on Figure 2, authors affiliated to Chinese organizations account for 25% of the article and review content in top SCIE journals (those ranking in the top half of cite-ability in at least one WoS category). Other SCIE journals get 22% of their content from China. On the contrary, journals that are not in SCIE but in one of the other journal indexes of the Core Collection of WoS (SSCI, AHCI, and ESCI) get only 5% of their content from China.
The misbalance between SCIE and other indexes may be the result of stronger Chinese emphasis toward sciences and/or the lack of appeal of international journals in Social Sciences and Humanities for Chinese authors. But it is also likely that it reflects a system of incentives that has driven Chinese researchers towards SCIE journals, especially those with higher impact.
Implementation and obstacles
The policy is ambitious in its scope and contradictory in places. For example, setting up an editorially rigorous and accurate index such as SCIE is complex and laborious. The Chinese administration may be able to achieve such a feat through trial, error, and considerable investment, but it is unlikely that it can do that within the next 2-3 years. The same goes for the development of domestic journals with international reach that can absorb a large volume of high quality, domestic literature (despite the investment of $29m per annum in a five-year period).
Moreover, moving away from the JIF is easier said than done. Non-Chinese institutions are also JIF averse, but plenty still rely on it for evaluations, and alternatives have not taken off. For instance, DORA may have almost two thousand organizations as signatories, but only a few hundred appear to be universities. Even if the JIF is no longer used for evaluations in China, researchers will still want to publish in the most impactful, most visible journals, which typically are indexed in SCIE.
Nonetheless, it is likely that Chinese researchers will cut back on the volume of manuscripts. Research will continue to happen and it will need to be published somewhere, but there will be less of drive to ‘salami slice’ (to split up findings into multiple separate papers rather than concentrating them into one stronger publication). SCIE journals with poor ranking and APC journals are likely to be affected the most, the former because they will matter less for evaluation and the latter because of the imposed funding restrictions.
Quantifying the impact
It is too early to accurately forecast the impact of the policy for international publishers. Instead, this analysis tests two scenarios (a ‘mild’ one and an ‘aggressive’ one) of varying paper flight from top SCIE journals, other SCIE journals, non-SCIE journals, and APC, fully Open Access journals in the next 2-3 years, based on 2018 data. The end result is likely to be between the two scenarios.
In both scenarios, it is assumed that (a) content in Chinese journals will be unaffected by the policy (as shown on Figure 2, they are already dominated by Chinese content), (b) non-SCIE journals will be affected less than SCIE journals, (c) top-SCIE journals will be affected less than other SCIE journals, and (d) APC, fully Open Access journals will be further affected. Table 1 below shows the parameters (paper loss from China) that have been fed to the model.
The analysis uses 2018 data from Clarivate’s InCites (which utilizes WoS data) and the Master Journal List for paper output (articles and reviews), publisher, location, categorization, and ranking by journal. Publisher information per journal has been checked against publishers’ lists for more than 30 large publishers, and APC information has been sourced from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).
The mild scenario suggests flight of 27k papers, equivalent to 1.3% of all articles and reviews (Figure 3). The aggressive scenario suggests flight of 75k papers, equivalent to 3.5% of all articles and reviews. At a first glance, the impact of the policy does not appear dramatic. While it can negate about a year of content growth across the industry, subscription publishers should be able to weather the storm. Many contracts will be negotiated long after a drop in content (if any) has taken place, and in addition, publishers can argue that the loss concerns the less impactful content of their portfolios.
Of course, the impact will vary by publisher (Figure 4). Those that receive a higher proportion of content from China, especially in low impact and/or APC Open Access journals, will lose more content. One publisher is expected to lose 12% of content in the aggressive scenario. At the same time, some other publishers with little exposure to China will be virtually unaffected.
The impact will be felt more quickly and fully in the fully Open Access APC industry (Figure 5). This is because (a) Open Access revenue is proportional to the volume of content and is realized a few months after the submission of a paper, (b) Open Access journals have been drawing a higher proportion of their content from China (Figure 2), and (c) the new policy is likely to affect such journals the most. Overall, the APC industry is expected to lose up to $33m (assuming DOAJ prices in USD and no discounts), equivalent to 5.6% of its content and 5.9% of its revenue. Three top-10 APC publishers are expected to lose more than 10% of their revenue in the aggressive scenario.
What comes next for publishers
It will not be long before the impact of the policy becomes tangible. Publishers may see a drop in submissions within months, and the public will see the impact on published papers before the end of 2020.
Aside of the immediate impact, the policy hints on the strategic intent of a Chinese administration that wishes to have more control over the distribution of scholarly information. This will be a long-term game for international publishers who need to build strategies in response. They may seek to contribute to the development of domestic, high quality journals or try influence the development of future policy. In any case, they cannot afford to stay idle.