Is China being short-changed by a UK-based science ranking index? It depends who you ask

Changes to how an international database assesses and tracks the affiliations of the authors of high-quality scientific research articles has raised questions about whether Chinese academics and institutions are being unfairly treated, amid other suggestions that the index had favoured China.

Based on data from March 2023 to February 2024, the latest rankings from the Nature Index, an annual ratings list published by the London-based scientific journal Nature, showed that Chinese institutions occupied 10 of the top 15 spots.

But the new assessment used an expanded database to include articles from 64 medical journals, a field in which the United States holds a significant lead, with more than four times the share of second-placed China.

“Even after the Nature Index was expanded to include more than 60 medical journals last year, China still ranked at the top of this database,” state-run Guangming Daily reported on June 10.

In recent years, the number of Chinese institutions included in the Nature Index has grown rapidly, even surpassing the number of articles published by Oxford and Cambridge researchers.

In 2023, Chinese institutions surpassed those from the US for the first time, a lead that was maintained and even expanded on by some institutions this year.

According to the index, the top 10 Chinese institutions with the most published research are: the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China, Peking University, Nanjing University, Zhejiang University, Tsinghua University, Sun Yat-sen University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Fudan University.

The rapid expansion has prompted suspicion of favouritism towards Chinese institutions by some who see China’s growth as part of a united front work plan.

On Quora, an online questions-and-answers platform, some discussions raised scepticism about China’s rise in the rankings, with some commenters suggesting that the ratings were influenced by funding from Chinese universities.

The Nature Index team confirmed it had received a series of questions from the Post but did not respond by publication time.

However, one Chinese researcher defended the ranking methodology.

“The addition of new journals is just a scientific update to the Nature Index’s statistical methods, and it could not be deemed unfair to any particular country,” said Liu Xiaomin, a researcher from the National Science Library at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

She also noted that new journals added to the index were selected by an independent group of researchers, and the criteria were publicly listed on the index’s website.

“This [paying money to buy rankings] is also impossible, because the calculation method and the journal data used for calculation are publicly available. If anyone has doubts about the calculation results, they can just calculate it themselves,” Liu said.

China’s increased presence on a global scientific index has prompted suspicion of favouritism towards Chinese institutions by some. Photo: EPA-EFE

“Different people have their own interpretations. We should understand this list appropriately while avoiding over-interpretation,” she added.

American institutions are not the only ones to have benefited from the inclusion of medical journals in the index.

An analysis showed that top Chinese universities saw an average increase of about 10 per cent in research output from 2022 to 2023. Specifically, Central South University, which is known for its medical expertise, recorded a 25 per cent increase in research, while research from Chongqing Medical University jumped by 80 per cent, due mostly to a small amount in the previous year.

China’s dominance is largely attributed to its strengths in chemistry and the physical sciences, which accounted for 85 per cent of its total share in the Nature Index in 2023. However, the country is also trying to catch up in biological sciences.

China’s share of published research in biological sciences rose by 15.8 per cent from 2022 to 2023 – the highest percentage among the four subjects tracked by the index.

This growth is underpinned by increasing research spending, which rose from 2.4 per cent of GDP in 2021 to 2.64 in 2023.

“The country’s growing assortment of large-scale science facilities demonstrates its ambition and hints at a desire for worldwide impact and recognition,” according to the journal Nature.

Scientific research facilities like the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory, the China Jinping Underground Laboratory, and the Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory are not only advancing fundamental research in physics but are also attracting international scientists.

“Many researchers really want to go to these unique big-science infrastructure facilities because it’s a source of new data that they wouldn’t get elsewhere,” said Anna Lisa Ahlers, head of a research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, in a June 5 Nature article.

A study published in the journal Science last year pointed to a significant impact from China’s “Young Thousand Talents” programme, which was launched in 2010 to attract high-calibre young researchers back to China.

“These returnees are the most productive 15 per cent of their peers, they publish on average 2½ times more papers than equivalent researchers who had remained in America,” The Economist reported on June 12.

Science policy researchers suggested this could be an ongoing shift. “US hegemony as the ‘go-to place’ for researchers around the world is in peril,” said Jenny Lee, a science-policy researcher at the University of Arizona, in a Nature report.

Some restrictive policies may harm scholars’ free choice. “You can’t collaborate with Chinese nationals if you have Nasa funding,” she added.



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