China’s ‘paper factories’ lack innovation, says Tsinghua provost

Bin Yang tells THE summit that Chinese universities lack ‘original, innovative ideas’

April 3, 2019
Bin Yang
Bin Yang

Chinese universities risk becoming mere article production factories that churn out papers lacking in original, innovative ideas, a provost at one of the nation’s leading institutions has suggested.

Bin Yang, provost and vice-president at Tsinghua University, told the Times Higher Education Innovation and Impact Summit that there was a perception that some Chinese universities had made great progress in research, but he said that the “picture was not always so rosy” and that the country’s universities still faced many “quality-related issues”.

During his keynote address, Professor Yang spoke about some of the key innovators of the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, including the physicist Robert Noyce and the computer scientist John McCarthy, before adding: “What do they have in common? None of them are Chinese.”

He acknowledged that China has “played a catch-up role” since then and was looking to make a substantial contribution to the fourth industrial revolution, but said that even just a decade or so ago, China’s internet giants were “simply applying existing ideas in the US to the Chinese market and were not demonstrating original innovation…until recent years”.

“What keeps Chinese university presidents awake? The lack of original, innovative ideas in papers that will take universities and the country forward. That’s the big concern,” he said.

“In an age of innovation, the goal is not to become a journal paper factory.”

Professor Yang cited several “obstacles” that hindered innovation in China at a time when the relevance of research to society was being widely questioned. These included academics’ focus on “safe” research topics and universities’ emphasis on publication output in their evaluation of researchers, the high proportion of ageing scholars and a lack of “research team members”.

The last was fuelled by a “PI or nothing” attitude among many Chinese academics, who have a preference for principal investigator positions at “low-level universities” over researcher positions at top institutions, he said.

However, Professor Yang said that a new policy at some universities forcing academics to retire at the age of 70, despite having the potential to lead to a “shock drop in the number of academics, might not be bad news for innovation and early career researchers”.

After his speech, Professor Yang was asked whether China’s national excellence initiatives, and the incentives that they offered, should be blamed for universities becoming publication factories.

He replied that the policies were “very efficient and productive” and that research quantity was an important base for the drive to increase quality.

But in the future, he continued, universities should work more closely with their local and provincial governments, industry and global partners so as not to “fall in another trap” by receiving money only from the central government.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Tsinghua provost: ‘paper factories’ thin on ideas

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