We agree with Jie Zhang that university reform is needed to improve the quality of Chinese research papers (Nature 514, 295–296; 2014). A home-grown scientist in China might then stand a chance of winning a Nobel prize for the first time.

Novelty in research remains rare: publications with a Chinese scientist as first or corresponding author accounted for just 362 papers in Nature and 388 in Science from 1992 to 2012. This is despite the government's increased investment in research during 2002–12 and its launching of talent schemes and large scientific programmes in past decades. China needs to recognize that Nobel prizes are awarded for scientific breakthroughs, not for short-term successes.

Switching the country's emphasis from publications in journals in Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index to multiple evaluation criteria could help, and would offset academic corruption in promotions and student graduation.

China should implement fixed annual salaries for scientists, rather than paying their incomes as a component of research funding, which undermines motivation. The scientific administration system needs overhauling, particularly with respect to funding applications and individual performance evaluation.