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26.01.2013

China's chemists should avoid the Vanity Fair





Problems in Chinese science are well documented. The slow pace of reform affects chemists more than most, says Nai-Xing Wang.





Change comes slowly in China and necessary change to the way Chinese science works is coming very slowly indeed. Despite suggestions earlier this year that reform was in the air, Chinese administrators still stick to their system of allotting funding according to the impact factors of the journals in which we publish our research. And chemistry is the field most adversely affected by this.


I have worked as a researcher in organic chemistry for many years, and am greatly concerned about the way Chinese chemistry is heading. Chemistry has made a great contribution to human society, but right now it seems that chemistry research in China has turned into a Vanity Fair.


The biggest problem remains the obsession with journal impact factors. Generally speaking, articles in journals with high impact factors are judged to appeal most to readers, but not every paper published in a high-impact-factor journal is high quality, and papers published in lower-ranked journals are never worthless. Yet some administrators in China take a very crude approach: high-impact-factor publications mean excellent work.


Research proposals are judged according to the impact factor of a scientist's previous publications. (And referees are usually selected on these criteria too.) Worse, the salaries of my chemistry colleagues go up or down depending on a complex mathematical formula based on the impact factor of the journals in which we publish our work — which we must supply in a detailed list.


An impact factor is a measure only of the frequency with which the average article in a journal is cited in a given period of time. So it is no surprise to find journals judged to have high impact in fashionable research areas, such as nanotechnology. For example, the impact factor of Nanotechnology Letters was 9.99 in 2010, but we should not judge this journal twice as valuable as the Journal of Organic Chemistry, with an impact factor of 4.21 in 2010. And some researchers in nanotechnology have not used mainstream techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrography, infrared or ultraviolet spectroscopy, or X-ray diffraction. They sometimes get by with just one instrument: an electron microscope. Some research on 'novel' materials is nothing more than pictures taken with such a microscope. In contrast, papers in organic synthetic chemistry often feature new synthetic routes and skills, but because some of the reactions involved are common, they are too often dismissed as lacking innovation and novelty.


If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer science. It is changed to a field of fame and game. There are other effects too. Administrators in almost every university and research institute like to evaluate researchers by their papers at the end of each year. As a result, chemists often choose easy research topics that can be written up inside a year. There are still some chemistry projects that last five years, but they are rare. Some topics are finished and written up inside six months. It is not unusual for a professor to publish ten papers in a year. And the outcome of a single project is usually split into several parts to produce more papers, which individually offer less information to readers.




“If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer science.”





I realize that such pressures are common in academia everywhere, but they are most serious in China now, because of the rigid reliance on impact factors, and they are worst in chemistry, because, in chemistry, it is much easier to produce a scientific paper from limited work. Often, papers do not describe truly new chemical reactions, just variations on an established theme. Someone publishes a new reaction, and some chemists just introduce a 'novel' substituent group and run the experiment under 'novel' conditions. The predecessors open a new door and some chemists follow them through wearing different 'novel' clothing.


One way to improve the situation, without slipping back to the days when research funding was allocated to favourites and friends, would be to judge scientists in China not just on journal impact factors but on the citations their papers receive after, say, two years, to see whether their work stands the test of time.


It is right to push Chinese scientists to publish in international journals, but currently there is too much emphasis on presentation and fancy concepts, and too little on solid, high-quality work. Texts that teach scientists how to write world-class papers — with a good structure including among other things, an abstract and an introduction — are popular in China at the moment. But too often these perfectly packaged and neatly written papers discuss empty concepts.


Additional pressure on chemistry in China comes from an increasing emphasis on making research projects 'useful'. China has a big population and lacks resources, so it is right to emphasize the importance of applied chemistry research, which needs an element of process engineering. But science is not directly equal to productivity. Pure chemistry, which explores the unknown and provides new tools for scientists, must not be overlooked.


We are now more than halfway through 2011, the Year of Chemistry. If China is to truly celebrate the discipline and produce good chemistry rather than lots of papers, then change needs to come quickly.


Nai-Xing Wang is a professor in the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing.




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  • #25832

    absolutely right, thanks





  • #25839

    There are much more elements than the author enumerated in this view that push chemistry (in fact every subject of science) research in China turne into a Vanity Fair. Why the administrators evaluate a researcher based on "counting papers and their IFs"? Why researchers pursuit rapid publication of meaningless results? 1. Lack of scientific evaluation methods. 2. Big profits of papers regardless of its significance. 3. Poor salary for most chemists (and other scientists) driving them into rapid publication process. These reflect China is in a very urgent and imbalanced state to try putting itself in a high S$T rank.





  • #25840

    There are much more elements than the author enumerated in this view that push chemistry (in fact every subject of science) research in China turne into a Vanity Fair. Why the administrators evaluate a researcher based on "counting papers and their IFs"? Why researchers pursuit rapid publication of meaningless results? 1. Lack of scientific evaluation methods. 2. Big profits of papers regardless of its significance. 3. Poor salary for most chemists (and other scientists) driving them into rapid publication process. These reflect China is in a very urgent and imbalanced state to try putting itself in a high S$T rank.





  • #25843

    I have listened prof.Wang for once
    a good teacher with a good conscience





  • #25844

    The author rightly criticizes the use of impact factor of the journal in judging the quality of the paper. However, when he states that "would be to judge scientists in China ... on the citations their papers receive" he goes back to usage of a metric that is the basis of the impact factor. After all, impact factors of the journals are calculated based on the citations received by all papers in that journal. A paper in nanotechnology is likely to cited twice more likely than a paper in organic chemistry and I am not sure how it will solve the problem enumerated by the author.





  • #25850

    Agree with the author on most aspects, except that the problem is not just worst in chemistry but the whole scientific community. Beside those rooted in academic systems, problems also occur on individual moral level, which is evidenced from recent reports. May scientists in China are truely scientists not just scientific workers (which seems at the same rank of another jobs) or academic gangsters...





  • #25873

    Totally agree with author, very honest, Professor Wang is one of the great professors in synthetic organic chemistry in China.





  • #25905

    This article reveals the serious situation we faced these days. However, it should be mentioned that there is no more tools nowadays to analyze a scientist's contribution in such a short time other than Journals impact factor. It is much more equal to measure the impact of authors' contribution in at least 2 year's citation. Concerning the administrators urgent mode for significant achievement in their career, it is better to measure a scientist regarding the IF of their publications and also H-index. For a long term and future development, it is better to improve the evaluation system.





  • #26065

    I agree with the most of the comments made by the author! However, I believe the problem runs deeper than this! we now educate more PhDs than ever but true ground-breaking discoveries happens randomly and rarely in science. So number of scientist outnumber the the number of quality discovery and creative works. therefore, we try to fill the gaps by discussions, reviews and low impact works till the next big finding.





  • #26379

    It's adequate to evaluate the scientific work in terms of Impact Factor in China! Several years ago, the scientific work was evaluated in terms of the number of publications. That was an integer arithmetic. Now, the Chinese administrators can do floating point arithmetic! What a significant advance in Chinese academia!


    p.s. Wang, if you want to be a fellow in CAS, please ... Rao was a case!





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