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Business Impact

The Truth about China’s Cash-for-Publication Policy

The first study of payments to Chinese scientists for publishing in high-impact journals has serious implications for the future of research

For many years, rumors have circulated that Chinese scientists are financially rewarded whenever their scientific papers are published in reputable journals.  At first, this caused the odd raised eyebrow among Western scientists, for whom this kind of financial reward is anathema. For them, science is venerated as a search for truth that is unaffected by self-interest.

But as the number of papers published by Chinese scientists has begun to skyrocket, these financial rewards have raised more serious questions about the credibility of work published with this kind of incentive and the integrity of Chinese science in general.

At the heart of this debate is an interesting question—just how much are Chinese scientists paid for publication in top journals?

The average amount of paid by Chinese universities for a paper published in selected journals between 2008 and 2016

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Wei Quan at Wuhan University, Bikun Chen at Nanjing University of Science and Technology, and Fei Shu at McGill University in Montreal.

These guys have surveyed the financial incentives offered by the top 100 universities in China and mined that data for interesting trends. They say that cash-per-publication incentives are common and that scientists who publish in the top Western journals can earn in excess of $100,000 per paper. What’s more, there are already worrying signs that these financial rewards are skewing the process of science in China.

China has well over 1,000 universities. But in the 1990s it began a program called Project 211 to turn 100 of them into world-class institutions. “Eventually, 116 universities were admitted to Project 211, forming an elite group of universities occupying 70% of national research funding and supervising 80% of doctoral students,” say Wei and co.

In 1998, China began another program called Project 985 to create the Chinese equivalent of U.S. Ivy League universities drawn from Project 211. Project 985 now has 39 universities, which receive even more funding.

The result is a three-tier university system consisting of 39 institutions in the top tier, 73 universities in tier 2, and over 1,000 universities in tier 3.

Wei and co say the first cash-per-publication policy was launched by the Department of Physics at Nanjing University around 1990. Initially, researchers received $25 for each published paper, and by the mid-1990s this had increased to up to $120.

This policy had a huge impact. After it began this reward system, Nanjing University topped the list of Chinese universities publishing the most papers in journals indexed by the service Web of Science for seven years in a row. So it didn’t take long for other universities to follow suit.

Many of universities now publish their cash-per-publication policies. So Wei and co used the Chinese search engine Baidu to find these documents on the websites of 100 universities—25 in tier 1, 33 in tier 2, and 42 in tier 3.

This is not an ideal sampling strategy, because many universities keep their reward polices secret, so the sampling is self-selecting in certain ways.  

Nevertheless, it is the first time anybody has attempted to systematically examine the landscape of cash rewards for scientists. Wei and co examine how rewards vary with the impact factor of the journal and also how they have increased over time.

The journals Science and Nature have by far the highest impact factors, and the rewards for publication are consequently highest for these. Wei and co say that in 2016 the average reward for publication of a single paper in these journals was $44,000 and the highest payment was $165,000.

That’s a significant amount in a country where the average salary of a university professor is just $8,600.

Payments for publication in journals with a lower impact factor were significantly smaller. The average payment for publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was $3,513, in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology  $2,488, and  in PLoS One $984.

“The reward value for a JASIST paper is equal to a single year’s salary for a newly hired professor while the cash award for a Nature or Science article is up to 20 times a university professor’s average annual salary,” say Wei and co.

That has begun to have an impact on the behavior of some scientists. Wei and co report that plagiarism, academic dishonesty, ghost-written papers, and fake peer-review scandals are on the increase in China, as is the number of mistakes. “The number of paper corrections authored by Chinese scholars increased from 2 in 1996 to 1,234 in 2016, a historic high,” they say.

As an example of the change in behavior, Wei and co report the case of one materials scientist at Heilongjiang University who published 279 papers in a single journal, Acta Crystallographica Section E. Between 2004 and 2009, this scientist received more than half the rewards handed out by the university.

That certainly suggests an entrepreneurial spirit, but one that is driven by short-term rewards rather than long-term research goals.

The focus on short-term positive results is a particular concern. In recent years, it has emerged that more than half of biomedical research cannot be reproduced, a finding that throws into question the process of science behind it.

That’s not a problem by any means limited to China. But the practice of paying for publication is likely to exacerbate the situation.

The data in this study is published by Chinese universities, but there are rumors of significantly higher payments that are not published. That cannot be good for progress.

Of course, Western scientists cannot claim to be free from external influences. The search for “truth” is not as pure as many would like to believe, but this practice could significantly tarnish it further. If publication success can be improved by cash payments to scientists, how long before universities in other countries follow suit?   

One way to combat this trend is with transparency. Many scientists declare their financial interests when publishing research. Surely journals should hold Chinese scientists, indeed any scientists, to the same standard by asking them to declare any payments they receive for publication.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1707.01162 : Publish Or Impoverish: An Investigation Of The Monetary Reward System Of Science In China (1999-2016)

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