It was over six decades ago, in 1955, that Eugene Garfield, while working on his PhD in structural linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, published a landmark paper in Science. Entitled “Citation indexes for science: a new dimension through association of ideas,” his concept was a simple one: a research publication was judged to be of importance if it was cited by authors of papers in scholarly journals, and the greater the number of citations, the greater the impact. Well, according to a Japanese science policy institute, China has now moved ahead of the United States in the number of most cited papers.
This milestone suggests that China’s scholarship, which has seen significant increases in quantity over the past two decades, appears to have caught up in quality as well. Caroline Wagner (seen below left), who is an expert on science policy and innovation at Ohio State University, commented: “People are writing off China, saying they’re pushing out a lot of stuff but it’s not good quality. That’s just short-sighted.” In a paper she and her colleagues published in 2020, they concluded that Chinese scholars who return after training overseas, publish higher impact work than their domestic counterparts.
The Japanese institute showed that China accounted for 27% of the most cited papers published from 2018 to 2020, followed by the United States with 25%, the United Kingdom was next with 5%, while Japan was in 10th place. One of Wagner’s collaborators, Cong Cao (seen left), now based at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China, cautions: “The question is who – the Chinese or their international collaborators – led the high impact studies?”
Ten years ago, universities in China started to incentivise their academics by paying them cash for publishing in high-impact journals such as Science and Nature. In 2016, the incentive was worth $44,000, an amount that raised eyebrows in the West where scientists consider such financial rewards as anathema. Fortunately this policy – which was designed to improve the international ranking of universities – is now being phased out at the behest of the Chinese government.
Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published a report entitled The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022 in which the highly cited papers were presented as a proportion of all published papers. As can be seen at right (© NSF), this measure places the United States ahead of both the EU and China. That said, China’s increase in highly-cited papers over the past two decades has been remarkable.