China’s sci-tech journals lose appeal for high-quality papers due to management issues
As China rises as a scientific power, sci-tech journals in the country still face the problem of limited influence and opaque management, which has driven a majority of academics to foreign publications for publishing their research and papers. Experts suggest “administrative means” should be used to guarantee struggling domestic journals more good articles or the sector should be “marketized” in bid to meet competition from abroad.

This January, the state-run China Association for Science and Technology published a “blue paper” on the development of academic journals, shedding light on the fact that only 9 percent of SCI papers by China-based academics were published by domestic SCI journals between 2007 and 2016. The SCI (Science Citation Index) is a list of journals deemed to meet certain criteria which make them worthy of tracking—like, how many times they are cited.

As China strives to become a leading power in science and technology, scholarly journals—generally considered a major vehicle to carry and demonstrate research results—are being propped up by support policies. With huge funding support from the government, the country’s research and publications have made progress in terms of both quality and quantity, said Wang Enge, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

On the other hand, the gap between Chinese and internationally recognized sci-tech publications is becoming more pronounced.

Based on the blue paper, by the end of 2016, there were a total of 5,020 sci-tech periodicals in China, ranking third globally after the United States and United Kingdom. However, most of the specialized journals are plagued by low quality contributions and limited influence, some industry insiders said, indicating many academics would go directly to mainstream English journals in bid to more effectively spread their research.

“Ever since I became a chief editor, the biggest problem I have faced is soliciting contributions. Sometimes, I have to beg people (to write for us),” Zhou Zhekun, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the chief editor of Plant Diversity said.

According to Zhou, authors of high-quality papers in the field of plant diversity, like in many other fields, prefer foreign journals to Chinese ones. So, domestic journals like the one he manages usually lack reliable sources of good papers and what’s called “Impact Factor (IF)”, an aggregated estimate of average citation of articles during a certain period. IF is generally regarded as indicator of a journal’s quality.

Also, research institutions in China usually connect the amount of incentive payment to their writers with the “Impact Factor” indicator. For example, based on the influence of journals in which papers get published, writers may get a reward ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 yuan.

Against the backdrop, many Chinese academics naturally choose foreign journals for garnering more attention to their research while earning more money.

There are some influential sci-tech journals in China. Based on official statistics, by 2017, there were a total of 197 SCI journals in the country. The problem is, in recent years, less papers are being published by China-based journals. Ren Shengli, a senior editor with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, said the situation indicated domestic journals were facing fiercer competition from their foreign counterparts vying for valuable papers.

“After all, there are not many SCI journals in China,” Lin Feng (alias), a researcher said, noting the two major issues curtailing development are low efficiency and not so transparent evaluation methods.

“Everyone prefers to go for the several high-quality journals, leaving editors and reviewers a hefty backlog,” Lin said. He once submitted his paper to a famous journal and waited nearly one year to get feedback.

Meanwhile, under-the-table deals further compromise the good names of domestic journals. “If I get to review your papers, I’ll let you know. Next time, if you get to comment on mine, you need to pay me back,” Lin revealed. “With career development of academics mostly decided by papers he or she has published, the guanxi element could hardly be avoided in the current appraisal system.”

“I would not recommend my students to refer to Chinese papers,” Chu Tao, an electronic engineering professor with the Zhejiang University, said, “Many of the articles are of poor quality and are merely published for the authors to put their names on.”

For many Chinese journals, a vicious circle has formed. They’re ignored by sci-tech researchers, and thus incapable of attracting worthy contributions, and without high-quality papers, they could hardly increase their academic influence.

Industry insiders suggest the sector should be more marketized. Peng Bing, the general manager of China Science Publishing & Media Ltd, said academic journals in the country were generally stuck at the “small workshops” phase, and so could hardly benefit from an open market.

For a long time, the management system for sci-tech journals in China is comprised of supervisors, operators and publishers. According to the blue paper, with 1,375 governing agencies and 4,381 publishing companies overseeing 5,020 periodicals, the right of management has been decentralized.

Wang Enge said that with vaguely defined ownership, property rights and multiple supervisory agencies, it’s challenging to optimize resources allocation and management.

Chu Tao who worked long years for the Tokyo University and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), one of the largest public research organizations in Japan, recommended “appropriate administrative interventions” like requiring sci-tech researchers to publish a certain number of papers in domestic journals while they’re engaged in state-backed programs. “Now that they receive funds from the country, they’re supposed to allow their work results to be more easily accessed and comprehended by their peers and students in the country.”   


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