'Publish or perish' leads to fraud and paper bubbles in research

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China has been investing heavily in scientific research and technological development in recent years to strengthen its innovative capacity.

The proportion of GDP spent on R&D grew from 0.9 percent in 2000 to 1.4 percent in 2007, according to the World Bank.

An IMF forecast in 2010 says China now ranks second globally in R&D spending. The IMF calculates China's R&D expenditure at US$150 billion when based on Purchasing Power Parity, a widely used economic concept that attempts to equalize differences in standard of living among countries.

By this measure, China surpassed Japan in R&D spending in 2010.

Many see China's huge investment in R&D as the momentum behind the country's explosive increase in research papers.

"Getting published is, in some ways, an improvement over being unable to get published," Mu said. "But the problem is, if the papers continue to be of low quality for a long time, it will be a waste of resources."

Job promotion

In China, academic papers play a central role in the academic appraisal system, which is closely related to degrees and job promotions.

While acknowledging the importance of academic papers in research, Mu believes a more balanced appraisal system should be adopted. "This is a problem with science management. If we put too much focus on the quantity of research papers, we leave the job of appraisal to journal editors."

In China, the avid pursuit of publishing sometimes gives rise to scientific fraud.

In the most high-profile case in recent years, two lecturers from central China's Jinggangshan University were sacked in 2010 after a journal that published their work admitted 70 papers they wrote over two years had been falsified.

"This is one of the worst cases. These unethical people not only deceived people to further their academic reputations, they also led academic research on the wrong path, which is a waste of resources," Mu said.

A study done by researchers at Wuhan University in 2010 says more than US$100 million changes hands in China every year for ghost-written academic papers. The market in buying and selling scientific papers has grown five-fold in the past three years.

The study says Chinese academics and students often buy and sell scientific papers to swell publication lists and many of the purported authors never write the papers they sign.

Some master's or doctoral students are making a living by churning out papers for others. Others mass-produce scientific papers in order to get monetary rewards from their institutions.

A 2009 survey by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) of 30,078 people doing science-related work shows that nearly one-third of respondents attributed fraud to the current system that evaluates researchers' academic performance largely on the basis of how many papers they write and publish.

More R&D investment

Despite rampant fraud, China will continue to inject huge money into science. According to the latest national science guideline, which was issued in 2006 by the State Council, the investment in R&D will account for 2.5 percent of GDP in 2020.

"If China achieves its stated goal of investing 2.5 percent of its GDP in R&D in 2020, and sustains its very fast economic growth over the next decade, it would quite likely pass the US in terms of total R&D investment sometime in the late 2010s," said Calto, adding that it is also quite likely that at some point China will churn out more papers than the United States.

According to Calto, China does mostly applied research, which helps drive manufacturing and economic growth, while basic research only accounts for 6 percent, compared with about 35 percent in Germany, Britain, and the United States, and 16 percent in Japan.

"In the long term, in order to really achieve dominance in any scientific area, I think it will be necessary to put significant financial resources into fundamental basic research - these are the theoretical areas that can drive the highest level of innovation," Calto said.

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