Research relevant to China ‘cast aside in race for citations’

Social scientists should be judged on their impact, while journals should make room for under-represented voices, say academics

August 5, 2020
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The Chinese system for evaluating social science research may have the unintended consequence of pushing academics away from the issues relevant to the country’s developmental needs, as authors choose subjects more likely to be approved by Western journals, academics have warned.

Researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University say that the emphasis on Clarivate Analytics’ Social Science Citation Index in assessments had led to Chinese scholars growing in influence, allowing a “silent China” to become a “China with a voice”.

However, writing in the ECNU Review of Education, published by East China Normal University, they warn that an “excessive reliance” on the SSCI also caused problems including “a lack of in-depth research into real Chinese social problems”.

In their drive to be published, Chinese academics chose “popular topics” that they felt would be interesting to Western – mostly American – editors, the paper says. They followed trends set by US researchers and began using Western theories to interpret domestic issues and, as a result, their role in serving the country’s development was weakened.

An over-reliance on the SSCI could mean undervaluing certain fields, such as ethnology, modern languages, literature or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the paper says.

There are signs that the Chinese government is aware of this problem: earlier this year, official guidelines discouraged universities from rewarding science researchers based primarily on how many articles they have in Clarivate’s Science Citation Index.

And it is telling that the latest paper was published in the ECNU Review of Education, founded in 2018, and an example of an English-language publication from China that is trying to add non-Western perspectives to the global conversation.

“The rise of China-based international journals will add to the bibliodiversity in the current scholar world,” Chen Shuangye, the journal’s executive associate editor and associate director at the ECNU Institute of Curriculum and Instruction, told Times Higher Education. “This is also a trend in other international journals – encouraging more under-represented voices.”

The authors of the SJTU paper suggested that China establish “a pluralistic mechanism, with equal importance placed on SSCI papers and other research achievements”.

They analysed how social science research was evaluated at 54 world-class universities. A review of faculty member handbooks at institutions such as Harvard and Stanford showed “no mention of SSCI papers” in relation to promotions or tenure. Instead, they used broader considerations.

In the Chinese system, SSCI papers are “almost always” included in guidelines for faculty and have become a basis for determining hiring, titles and grants. On top of that, the weight given to SSCI publication could be several times greater than that given to the Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index.

The authors conclude that the importance of SSCI papers “must not be overstated”, and that the main purpose of an evaluation system should be “to facilitate the development of social sciences with a style and characteristics unique to China”.

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