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China science

Are China’s scientists more interested in cash than the search for truth?

New study suggests financial rewards for published papers are tarnishing the reputation of Chinese research

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 July, 2017, 8:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 July, 2017, 11:00pm

A financial reward system for the publication of academic papers has been instrumental in raising China’s profile in the global scientific community. However, a new study has questioned whether it also has resulted in scientists becoming more concerned about lining their pockets than checking the accuracy of their research.

The research, carried out by a team led by Chen Bikun, an associate professor at Nanjing University of Science and Technology’s School of Economics and Management, looked at the different reward policies adopted by 100 Chinese universities over the past 17 years.

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Released earlier this month, the study found that between 1999 and 2016, academics were paid between US$30 and US$165,000 for each paper they had published in an internationally recognised journal, with the mean payment rising noticeably over the past decade.

The average reward for an article published in either Nature or Science, for instance, rose from US$26,212 in 2008 to US$43,783 last year, an increase of 67 per cent. The top figure equates to about 20 times a professor’s annual salary, the study said.

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China’s cash-for-papers policy came under increased scrutiny last month when a research team was awarded US$2 million for a paper on a possible cure for rice fungus published in the scientific journal Cell.

The payment was made to Professor Chen Xuewei and his colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University for their breakthrough work that could help rice crops become resistant to a deadly fungus known as rice blast.

Despite the credibility of the team’s work, the size of their reward – which equated to about double the amount last year’s Nobel laureates received – made headlines around the world and raised questions about the ethics of paying scientists such large sums for their research.

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In China, the cash-for-papers system was introduced by Nanjing University in Jiangsu province about 1990, according to Chen Bikun’s study.

Though the reward in those days was just US$25, the scheme led to a huge spike in the number of papers published by the university, which topped the national rankings for such for the whole of that decade. Other universities rapidly followed suit and launched their own reward schemes.

According to figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number of papers published outside the country increased 17-fold between 1996 and 2014, from 13,134 to 232,070.

“Traditionally, financial incentives are used in business to reward employees for their excellent performance,” Chen Bikun said in the study.

“[But now] Chinese universities are rewarding their scholars for their research performance,” he said.

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Despite the negative implications of the payment system, there can be no doubt that it has been instrumental in raising the profile of China’s scientists on the world stage, the study said.

“The reward policy has been successful, as China has experienced exponential growth in the number of papers it has had published in international science publications over the past 20 years.”

Chen could not be immediately reached for comment about his study – which is currently in draft form pending peer review – but it has already caught the attention of scientific journals overseas.

“This caused the odd raised eyebrow among Western scientists, for whom this kind of financial reward is an anathema,” said a commentary in MIT Technology Review last week.

“For them, science is venerated as a search for truth that is unaffected by self-interest,” it added.

In his research, Chen claimed that some Chinese scholars are “driven to publish just for the monetary reward rather than disseminating knowledge and receiving the recognition”.

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He cited the example of a materials scientist at Heilongjiang University, who between 2004 and 2009 had more than 250 papers published in a single journal, for which he received “more than half of the total cash rewards” given by the university in the northeastern province. He did not name the researcher.

According to other studies, last year there were 1,234 corrections made to academic works published by Chinese scientists. In 1996, the number was just two. The figures were released amid growing concerns about the scale of academic fraud in the country, which encompasses plagiarism, dishonesty, ghost written papers and fake peer reviews.

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Not that China is the only guilty party, according to the article in the MIT Technology Review.

“The search for ‘truth’ is not as pure as many would like to believe,” it said, though the events in China could “tarnish it further”.

It added: “If publication success can be improved by cash payments to scientists, how long before universities in other countries follow suit?”

In contrast, a front page editorial in the July 5 issue of China Science Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, referred to the US$2 million award in Sichuan as a “new beginning”.

In the past, China’s investment in research and development went mostly on the purchase or construction of large, sophisticated hardware and facilities, it said. Such spending was “unfair” to the scientists, the majority of whom earn relatively modest salaries, it said.

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Jason Chan, Asia spokesman for global publishing group Elsevier, said that controversy aside, it is clear that China’s research might is growing, and not just in terms of the number of papers it has published.

“China still has some catching up to do in terms of quality of research output but the gap is closing fast,” he said.

“What’s interesting is that the country is starting to be a serious innovation exporter, judging from the growing number of patent applications filed,” Chan said, adding that the figure had been rising by about 19 per cent a year, to 1.1 million in 2015 alone.