Chinese universities: ‘intellectual curiosity must replace targets’

Concerns China's researchers are driven too much by external motivations, like funding or publications, than desire for new knowledge

December 21, 2016
Female scientist examine transgenic plants in the growth chamber
Source: iStock

Chinese university managers think that their universities need to change so that they value “intellectual curiosity” and discovery for its own sake, rather than the external markers of research success like publications and funding, according to a series of anonymous interviews about the country’s universities.

Despite huge growth in Chinese scientific output since the turn of the millennium, the system has been dogged by perverse incentives that critics believe prioritise publication over quality.

Zhejiang University, for example, has a complex system of bonuses that distributes different amounts to researchers depending on a journal’s impact factor – with a 200,000 Rmb (£23,339) reward for a paper in Nature or Science – according to two researchers who explained the system in a paper in 2011.

But according to 30 anonymous interviews conducted with Chinese university researchers, managers and representatives of international academia, there is now a strong view that this kind of reward system should change.

“Most interviewees expressed a strong view that academics should shift from extrinsic motivation (indicators, funding, publications) to intrinsic motivation (intellectual curiosity) in order to achieve research excellence,” found research by Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education systems at Utrecht University, and Jiabin Zhu, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Another representative of an international business told them: “Chinese universities and faculty are not into pursuing academic excellence, as they are too much focused on financial reward and reputation."

“Interviewees also agreed that university administration should shift to a model with more autonomy, in particular in human resources management. Less intervention, a more ‘market-driven’ system with healthy competition, and a more rationalized system for performance evaluation is needed, in their view,” the research found.

The interviews, the results of which are published in a chapter of a recently released book about “world-class” universities, also reveal that Chinese scholars are frustrated by internet censorship that forces them to use workarounds to access Google Scholar.

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