Chinese scholars ‘win up to £127,000’ for papers in top journals

Analysis reveals extent of reward system for international publications, which could be distorting scientific incentives

July 14, 2017
Chinese tourists catch money
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Chinese scientists can win awards of up to $165,000 (£127,000) from their universities for publishing in leading scientific journals, according to research that exposes the country’s system of “cash for articles”.

Academics in the West have long feared that competition to be published in the most prestigious, high-profile journals in order to achieve a career boost may be distorting scientific incentives.

But a new paper details the extent to which Chinese universities are going one step further and openly offering large sums in return for publication.

Science and Nature are the most lucrative journals, netting Chinese scientists an average of $43,783 per publication (one university policy sets out a reward of $165,000), an increase of two-thirds since 2008.

The average professorial salary in China is $8,600.

Comparison of average cash awards* ($) for a paper published in selected journals (2008-16)

Journal 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Nature, Science 26,212 26,006 25,781 25,365 33,990 36,658 38,908 43,783 43,783
PNAS 3,156 3,025 3,353 3,443 3,664 3,619 3,751 3,513 3,513
Plos One 1,096 1,086 1,035 994 991 915 941 984 984
MIS Quarterly 2,613 2,570 2,553 2,654 2,876 2,861 2,992 2,938 2,938
JASIST 1,737 1,758 1,741 1,887 2,066 2,303 2,435 2,488 2,488
Journal of Documentation 1,082 1,087 1,042 1,111 1,167 1,265 1,329 1,408 1,408
Library Hi Tech 781 775 726 741 740 768 795 783 783
LIBRI 650 644 577 560 538 509 517 484 484

*All the amounts are full amount awarded to the first author. Source: “Publish or impoverish: An investigation of the monetary reward system of science in China (1999-2016)”

To the surprise of the paper’s authors, “Tier 3” universities – that is, those institutions that are not part of special research funding programmes – offer bigger rewards to scientists than their richer counterparts. A scientist at a Tier 3 university who published in Science or Nature bags an average of $63,187, they found.

The authors scoured the internet to find the policies of 100 Chinese universities, drawn from across the country and at different levels of research prestige.

At some universities, scientists are given cash rewards depending on the journal impact factor (JIF) of the outlet in which they publish. Others pay out based on how many citations a paper racks up in a certain time frame.

Since 2005, the authors found, Chinese universities have increasingly shifted to handing out rewards based on which quartile a publication falls in Clarivate Analytics’ Journal Citation Reports.

“The average amount of cash award has increased over the past 10 years, except that the amount awarded to papers published in journals with low JIF has decreased,” the authors write.

Universities focus on rewarding publication in journals included in Clarivate’s Web of Science (WoS) database, which helps institutions to climb international rankings and receive funding. The authors conclude that the system of cash for papers has led to a “radical increase in China’s international scholarly publication”.

But ignoring journals outside the Web of Science means that many papers published in Chinese journals are “almost ignored and excluded from the cash reward”.

And using bibliometric indicators such as the JIF to determine payouts is “abusive”, the authors conclude, as it is “widely recognised to be a poor metric for evaluating the quality of individual papers”.

The rewards can also encourage scientists to spam journals with vast numbers of articles in order to maximise their return, the authors warn. They cite the example of one professor who between 2004 and 2009 published 279 papers in one journal, winning more than half the rewards given out by his university during the period.

His “only research focus in these five years was to find new crystal structures in his lab and always report the results of this to the same journal, because he could accomplish the goal of winning the cash bonus in [the] short term as contrasted with receiving fewer awards by conducting long-term research projects”, the authors say.

The article, “Publish or impoverish: An investigation of the monetary reward system of science in China (1999-2016)”, is currently on the arXiv preprints repository.

Its authors are Wei Quan, of the School of Information Management at Wuhan University; Bikun Chen, from the School of Economics and Management at Nanjing University of Science and Technology; and Fei Shu, of the School of Information Studies at McGill University.

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