In recent years, that classical Western ideal of the communality of science has been roiled, particularly in the biological sciences, by the lure of profits through patents. Many express outrage at the secrecy that preparing a patent application imposes and contempt for the excesses that have led, say, to the patenting of individual snippets of genomes. Rightly viewed, though, a patent is a form of publication and removes the need for secrecy, preserving priority yet restoring communality.
Here is a curious convergence. At some point in every conversation I had with scientists in China, I raised the problem of plagiarism. The response was always the same, and on first impression it seems unexpected – not evasive, exactly, but indirect. On reflection, it begins to look like acknowledging the problem, sure, but moving on to the ways, in the Chinese setting, that young scientists in the making might be brought to think differently, to see the benefits of taking in the Western norms.
So institute directors and principal investigators say they teach that intellectual property means, in the first place, patents. Young Chinese scientists are urged to consider which of their results are patentable and to apply. Suddenly, out of the ruck of ideas, methods, data, discoveries that were loosely thought held in common, individual ownership emerges in a most hard-edged form.
Secondly, Chinese scientists are urged, commanded, to prepare their work and write it up to be published in top Western peer-reviewed journals. Nature, Science, Cell are targeted. Such publication is heavily emphasized in the 97-3 Program, and an individual laboratory’s success in international journals is crucial at 2+3 time. National prestige is an important, overt motive here. The effect on individual laboratories and scientists, though, is to force them to absorb Western standards of quality, to live them, to learn to live by them. It is, in short, a process of acculturation.