China’s promised research reform ‘little more than PR exercise’

Aims to move away from metrics-based evaluations floundering, study finds

May 23, 2022
: Visitors pose for photos with a 3D art installation during an exhibition to illustrate China’s promised research reform ‘little more than PR exercise’
Source: Getty

Despite official Chinese policy calling for an overhaul to pivot its metrics-based research assessment system away from international benchmarks, the country has done little to advance its goals in the past two years, academics say.

Since the 1990s, China had told its researchers to target publication in international journals listed in the Science Citation Index (SCI) – a policy that made it a global research power. But in 2020, the government told universities to downgrade the importance of SCI scores in evaluation and to prioritise locally relevant research instead.

Chinese scientists came under fire during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic for releasing their findings via Western journals – including a groundbreaking study on the early spread of the disease in Wuhan, which was published in The Lancet.

In response, official documents published by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) pointed to a new research evaluation system meant to boost domestic science output and finally tackle issues that had long plagued Chinese academia: research misconduct and retractions driven by the pressure to publish.

But since then, very little has happened in the way of substantive reform, argue researchers led by Fei Shu, a senior researcher in the Chinese Academy of Science and Education Evaluation at Hangzhou Dianzi University.

“Two years into the pandemic, the documents issued by MoST and MoE appear more like a communication exercise to appease public anger than the start of a strong policy reform,” they write in the journal Minerva.

The study authors found that 16 provincial science and technology departments had issued corresponding documents echoing the new priorities, but the papers “do not reveal any alternatives to the SCI, and simply quote the statements made by MoST and MoE”.

“Chinese universities and research institutes need to receive a clear and consistent signal that the policy reform is not only an armchair strategist,” they write.

The researchers suggest that the Ministry of Education should redraw China’s Double First Class excellence initiative with a reduced focus on citation performance, and that the Ministry of Science should give local publications the same weight as international ones in grant application decisions.

But Dr Shu was sceptical that the system would change substantively in the next few years, given how deeply entrenched the current method of evaluation is – both for academics and the officials in charge of setting the policies.

“The government cares more about numbers…than the quality of higher education,” he told Times Higher Education.

He noted that the minister of education and other senior administrators had been promoted based on their performance, which is measured by indicators such as the number of papers published and international ranking results. Such a system gave them little incentive to push for reform.

Li Tang, a professor in science and innovation policy at Fudan University, agreed that China’s metrics-based evaluation practices have “contributed largely” to its rapid rise in international rankings, although she said that research assessment was aimed more at mitigating “abuse” of the numbers game rather than it was at discouraging international publishing per se.

But she, too, was doubtful that Chinese participation in international publishing would decline any time soon.

“There are many factors that lead to this phenomenon, [including] the growing number of journals indexed in SCI, the increasing number of Chinese researchers educated or employed overseas [and] the expanding international collaboration network,” said Professor Tang.

“The uncontrollable impulse of many academics, Chinese scientists included, is to communicate with colleagues and to have more impact in the domain. Publishing in international journals in English is one way to go.”

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