The West must focus on the challenges of China’s research rise

Fixating on how research misconduct might impact the figures could distract the scholarly world from bigger questions about the future direction and conduct of science, explains Simon Baker

February 14, 2019
University life in China

Data suggesting that China is fast catching to (or has even already caught) the US as the world’s dominant research power are not hard to find these days. But such analysis is sometimes accompanied by reservations about whether the statistics tell the whole story.

Such doubts often revolve around the fact that as China’s contribution to global science has increased, so too have the examples of research misconduct emanating from the country.

Peer-review fraud, plagiarism and bibliometric game-playing are just a few of the practices that appear to be common in China, and the cases that have come to light raise the obvious question: are they just the tip of the iceberg?

If they are, then can data on China’s rise really be relied on to assess where the country’s research is in relation to that of the US?

Such a line of thinking is understandable, and it is right to be sceptical about the data on research publications, which are far from perfect. But taking such a standpoint could also be problematic for various reasons.

First, it is impossible to know how widespread academic misconduct is in China. Although the fuel for misconduct (in the form of huge publishing incentives) is clearly there, international science is such a vast, interconnected web of checks and balances that it is difficult to see how fraudulent research on a large scale could persistently slip through the net.

Second, a view that China’s rise is skewed by misconduct and game-playing sometimes seems to overlook the fact that such problems have afflicted every country in the world to at least some degree. High-profile misconduct scandals have beset even the world’s top institutions. And anyone with knowledge of the UK’s research excellence framework knows that universities will sometimes find ways – albeit within the rules – to eek out an advantage even if it is not always seen as playing fair.

Third, bibliometric data on China’s research impact could underestimate performance given suggestions of a citation bias towards Western scholarship (not to mention the fact that the journal editors and peer reviewers who are gatekeepers to published research are often based in Europe and North America).

Such factors mean that for any developed research nation to become fixated on whether the data on China’s rise are entirely accurate would be dangerously complacent.

Predictions such as that reported in Times Higher Education last year that China could overtake the US on overall citation impact by the mid-2020s should be taken seriously and their implications examined carefully.

For instance, if China does reach a point where it is viewed as the leading research power, could the world’s scholarship start to be skewed towards subject areas where it is concentrating? Might already-stretched resources in Western universities be funnelled into a narrow range of fields as faculties attempt to keep up with China’s well-resourced institutions? What are the implications for academic freedom if so much of the globe’s cutting-edge research is originating in a system where state surveillance is the norm and the internet is restricted?

These are among the fundamental questions that need to be addressed by the scientific community worldwide. Exploring these issues and others like them now – as projects such as Utrecht University’s New Silk Road programme are doing – will help to ensure that the tectonic shifts in global research that result from China’s increased role are well understood and do not cause too much disruption to science.

But perhaps even more importantly, as pointed out by Harvard University’s William Kirby in our feature this week, China’s rise should also be viewed as a golden opportunity for universities in developed higher education systems to rise to the challenge and up their research game for the benefit of all.

The greatest prize from such an approach would be that China is forced to move towards global scientific norms such as openness and collaboration in its bid to keep pace with the West, making worries about widespread misconduct redundant.

Simon Baker is data editor at Times Higher Education.

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