Fame is Fortune in Sino-Science

September 27, 2013

27 Sept (CHINA) – You may have heard that Chinese researchers are not very well compensated, compared to their Western counterparts. What you might not know is that they can increase their income by a factor of 10 with a single publication. The better the journal they publish in, as judged by the average number of times that its papers are cited, the more money they make. According to an anonymous source specializing in science evaluation in China, some research institutions follow a simple formula for determining cash rewards: 10,000 yuan, multiplied by one plus the journal impact factor (the impact factor reflects average citation levels). For example, publication in The Lancet, whose impact factor was 39.06 in 2012, would fetch 400,600 yuan (about $65,000). By comparison, the average yearly income of Chinese scientific researchers was 39,850 yuan in 2007, according to a survey by the China Association for Science and Technology.1

untitled (4)The role of famous journals is firmly ensconced into the life of Chinese academia. This reporter carried out an informal survey of 17 scientists working in China, and found that 15 scientists agreed that publication in high-impact factor journals is decisive for promotion. In addition, 65 percent agreed that it has a remarkable influence on their income, and 76 percent said it was very common to see research institutions granting cash rewards to researchers for publication. These results are consistent with a 2004 survey which found that 43 percent of scientific researchers said this kind of performance-linked pay accounted for more than 50 percent of their income.2

But the requirement to publish in these journals is also widely resented. Thirteen of 17 survey respondents said that the impact factor was not a reasonable way to judge a researcher’s potential, and 12 were against cash rewards based on journal title. These opinions reflect a groundswell of opposition to the role of the impact factor in professional success. A watershed moment came in 2011, when the well-known chemist Nai-Xing Wang published an editorial in Nature claiming that

“chemistry research in China has turned into a Vanity Fair”

because of the obsession with impact factors.3 Entrenched yet unpopular, the impact factor is a window onto the history of Chinese science, and seemingly inextricable from its near-term future. A turning point in that history came in 1983, when Nanjing University’s president, Kuang Yaming, joined three other university presidents in writing a letter to the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee. The letter urged them to choose 50 universities1 to be developed to world-class standards. The good news was that the central committee agreed with the goal suggested in the letter, and selected 15. The bad news was that Kuang’s own university was not among those chosen. Kuang’s successor, Qu Qinyue, was left with the task of competing with these universities, each of which would be receiving substantial support from the central government.

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