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Does China need to look beyond SCI?

Sheng Fen-Ku | Jan 9, 2015 | 9,533 views
China’s SCI-oriented research output evaluation system needs a makeover

Over the last few years, China’s contribution to global research has increased steadily and significantly. An increasing number of Chinese researchers are publishing their manuscripts in international journals. In fact, China might be on the path to becoming a global leader in scientific research and publishing. One of the main reasons for this increased visibility is China’s Science Citation Index (SCI) focused scientific evaluation system. This system encourages (occasionally, even makes it mandatory for) Chinese researchers to submit their manuscripts to SCI-indexed journals, thus increasing the number of international publications authored by researchers in China. This approach was known to have first been adopted by Nanjing University in the 1980s and was eventually followed by nearly every academic institution in China.

According to Professor Qu Qinyue, Principal of Nanjing University, in 1984, China leaned toward SCI publication because of two major factors: (1) China’s research and publication system lacked a singular objective evaluation standard. (2) The peer review process in some specialized disciplines suffered due to a lack of experts who could serve as eligible peer reviewers. As a result, China’s research output was not on par with that of its international counterparts. The primary objective behind using publication in SCI-indexed journals was to have a uniform, quantitative metric for researchers who choose to publish in in international academic journals.

Gradually, SCI publication began to influence every aspect of researchers’ academic and professional lives (e.g., receiving funds, being promoted, or even getting a degree), so much so that publication in an SCI-indexed journal became the primary goal. Organizations, too, began to use it to evaluate candidates or to secure funds from the government. Thus, the grant application of a researcher with SCI publications would be evaluated positively, and a high number of SCI-indexed publications would increase the credibility of an organization. However, excessive reliance on SCI also led to a few problems. In order to increase governmental support, organizations raised the bar for evaluating researchers based on the number of their publications in high-impact SCI journals. Thus, the pressure to publish intensified and eventually led researchers to adopt unethical publication practices. Further, the blind pursuit of an increased number of SCI publications affected the quality of research and China’s scientific output came to be questioned globally.

Realizing the potential dangers due to the excessive reliance on SCI publication, a group of medical researchers and practitioners met at a national symposium on “SCI Papers and Healthcare Education” held at Peking University’s Health Science Center on 22 November 2014. At the symposium, 33 eminent physicians and researchers expressed their disapproval of China’s SCI-focused evaluation system. They argued that the practice of determining the quality of or value added by physicians, researchers, or teachers based on the number of SCI papers they have published has distorted the perceptions of the true nature, purpose, and value of these roles. They also signed a declaration advocating “handling SCI papers, medical treatment, and medical education the right way.” At the symposium, Dr. Hu Dayi from the Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases at Peking University People’s Hospital pointed out:

SCI has assisted China’s academic development and has also increased the international visibility of Chinese research. However, using SCI publication as the only basis for assessing grant applications, granting promotions, or evaluating a researcher’s or an organization’s performance has more negative than positive consequences. The most important objective of educational institutions and hospitals is to provide the highest quality education and medical care, and this is what our nation should primarily focus on.

Echoing the physicians’ declaration, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the leading research organization in China, promoted a paper titled “The grief and anxiety of SCI” (originally authored by Dr. Tian Baozhong and published in the journal High-Technology & Industrialization in November 2011). In his paper, Dr. Tian proposes 3 solutions to break China’s focus on SCI-publications.

1. All members of the academic and scientific community in China should understand the implications of SCI publishing as well as evaluation measures such as the impact factor. This will help them understand the need for an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of research output.

2. The Chinese government should devise a fairer and more comprehensive evaluation system for researchers and grants.

3. The government should also encourage Chinese journals to seek inclusion in SCI.

While SCI publication was intended to function as a standard to gauge research quality, over the years, it has been misused and overused. As a result, the quality of China’s research output and the integrity of its researchers have been called into question. China needs to look beyond the belief that publication in an SCI-indexed journal is the only way to ensure high quality of scientific research or increase visibility on the global research platform. 

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