NEWS

China splashes millions on hundreds of home-grown journals

US$29-million investment aims to boost the country’s status as an international scientific powerhouse.

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China is taking dramatic steps to improve the quality and international reputation of its home-grown science journals. Publishers of hundreds of Chinese titles will receive generous government funding as part of a major five-year plan to elevate the country’s publications to among the world’s best.

The government said in August that it wants to publish more of the world’s breakthrough discoveries in Chinese journals. On 25 November, it revealed that it will spend more than 200 million yuan (US$29 million) per year for 5 years to help improve the standards of some 280 journals — most of which publish in English — and to increase submissions from international researchers.

China has launched several initiatives over the past five years to improve the quality and international submission rates of its roughly 500 English-language science journals, following growing concerns that some were publishing a lot of low quality, even fraudulent, research. The initiatives have helped to improve some publications, but editors say that few manuscripts are submitted from top researchers in China or abroad.

The latest initiative is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to transform the country’s scientific-publishing landscape, says Tao Tao, an independent consultant on Chinese academic publications who is based in Washington DC. “The new programme, given its scale, will be successful,” she says.

It also marks a turning point in a long-running debate about how China should raise its status as an international scientific powerhouse, says Tang Li, who researches science policy at Fudan University in Shanghai. Many Chinese-born scientists who have returned after training overseas think the country’s research heft is already reflected in the increasing number of the country's scientists publishing in prominent foreign-owned journals. But Chinese journal editors and publishers think that more highly regarded Chinese-owned publications are needed to burnish the country’s reputation. The latest investment signals that the government is backing the latter strategy, says Tang.

Two other recent developments are also likely to bolster China’s scientific-publishing industry. Last month, Chinese Science Publishing and Media in Beijing became the first Chinese publisher to buy a major foreign competitor, the French-owned Edition Diffusion Press Sciences, which publishes journals in English and French. And on 29 November, the Chinese government announced that scientists applying for one of the country’s most prestigious science prize, the National Natural Science Award, should include domestic publications in their application. Previously, researchers mostly submitted publications in prominent foreign journals.

Show me the money

The government’s latest investment is overseen by a committee of representatives from seven high-profile organizations, including the finance, science and education ministries; the General Administration of Press and Publication, a powerful Communist Party propaganda agency; the Chinese science and engineering academies; and the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, a non-governmental science organization.

To determine how funds will be allocated, the committee has ranked 250 journals into three tiers on the basis of quality, although it has not released details about how the ranks were decided. Twenty-two ‘tier one’ journals, which publish in English, will each receive between one million and 5.2 million yuan per year to help them attract submissions from researchers around the world. Another 29 ‘tier two’ English-language journals will each receive between 600,000 and one million yuan per year. Four hundred thousand yuan will be invested in each of another 199 ‘tier three’ journals, half of which publish in Chinese. An additional 30 journals that have not been ranked will be selected each year to share 500,000 yuan to improve their quality.

The government has not yet revealed how the programme’s success will be measured, but Tao thinks that journal impact factors might be used to gauge improvements in quality.

The investment is understandable, given that publications don’t have a lot of money to boost quality themselves, says Cao Cong, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. But he notes that the country has mostly succeeded in becoming a research powerhouse without such publications, and that China will remain a global leader in science whether or not its journals become highly regarded globally. Science is international and researchers want to publish in the best journals regardless of where they’re based, says Cao. “There is no such thing as Chinese chemistry, American biology or German physics,” he says.

Cao doubts that the investment in Chinese-language journals will pay off in terms of international acclaim, because non-Chinese-speaking scientists are unlikely to publish in them.

But having more Chinese-owned publications could save Chinese institutions money, says Tao, because — unlike international journals — domestic publishers are likely to offer reduced publication charges for Chinese researchers, says Tao.

Nature 576, 346-347 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03770-3

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