China increases share of global scientific publications

Big country sees big science boom

China's scientific growth is keeping up with its meteoric economic rise, according to figures released last week. But the growth seems to vary widely between fields and the quality of the work may be lagging in some of them.

Between 1981 and 2003, China clocked a 20-fold increase in its publications in international scientific journals (see graph), reports Science Watch, a newsletter tracking trends in scientific activity, published by Philadelphia-based Thomson ISI.


Although China publishes only half as many papers as Japan, it is pulling away from other nations in the region, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. China now accounts for over 5% of the world's scientific publications.

Papers with authors affiliated to Chinese institutions now account for 10% of the literature in materials science, and for 8% of that in mathematics and physics.

Ron Shen, a materials scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is originally from Shanghai, says that China has strong historical foundations in metallurgy. He says its interest in materials science has accelerated with access to better equipment.

Shen notes, however, that papers in many fields, including physics, chemistry and geosciences, still have low ‘average impact factors’. The impact factor is a rough measure of how influential a paper is. “Chinese researchers are good in analytical and technical skills,” he says, “but perhaps weaker on reasoning and interpretation.”

China remains one of the smaller players in the life sciences, with its share of total publications ranging from 0.8% in immunology to 2% in plant science, Science Watch finds. And Mu-Ming Poo, who heads the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, says that some of the overall growth in the nation's scientific profile can be attributed to the thousands of papers from labs in the United States that are co-authored by visiting Chinese researchers and students who maintain affiliations in their homeland.

Chinese authors do account for an increasing number of the world's most influential papers, finds Science Watch. But to get ahead, Shen says, China needs to assert itself as a leader and not a follower. “It is still very much influenced by the outside world,” he says, “so it follows the research trends of the West very closely.”

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Cyranoski, D. China increases share of global scientific publications. Nature 431, 116 (2004).

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