By Eugene Sebastian
China’s scientific research is rising.
In 2005, China ranked 5th after US, UK, German and Japan in number of scholarly publications across all disciplines. In 2010, it ranked second after the US.
While China’s volume of publications continue to grow quickly, there is evidence to show that its quality is also increasing.
Citation – or more accurately, visibility or scientific impact – is generally an accepted proxy of research quality.
In Mathematics, China’s annual citations is projected to surpass the US in 2037. In nanotechnology, the number of highly cited papers continues to grow.
What is driving China’s surge in citations?
One explanation is that China’s researchers are publishing better papers in better journals with higher impact factors, which attracts more citations.
Another explanation is the intense competition among Chinese researchers in itself driving forward better research.
‘Ethnic ties’ is another possible explanation. Chinese local researchers collaborating with Chinese researchers abroad in the US, UK, Canada and Australia are contributing to the quality rise. Publishing with the best and in English helps.
There is perhaps another possible explanation for China’s citation growth.
In a recent working paper published by collaborating researchers from China, US and UK suggests Chinese researchers are more likely to be internally cited by themselves and other Chinese authors than are their counterparts in other countries.
In other words Chinese elite authors extensively citing each other is creating a ‘clubbing’ effect and therefore having an effect on citation.
Using nanotechnology as a case study, the Li Tang, Philip Shapira and Jan Youtie explored whether there exists a ‘clubbing’ effect in China’s citation surge.
Focusing on 120 heavy hitters – heavy hitters are considered multi-authored, multi-affiliated and often internationally collaborative – of China’s rapidly emerging domain, Tang, Shapira and Youtie found that highly cited Chinese papers are more likely than similar US papers to be cited by works from China and from the same institution or author within the same country.
The citation difference between US and Chinese highly cited papers at all three levels is in fact stark.
The researchers suggest several compelling reasons.
China’s science and technology evaluation system is undergoing a significant change with increasing emphasis on indexed publications (SSCI/SCI), top journals based on journal impact factor, and cumulative citations counts.
“This creates an incentive for seeking citations wherever they are available and they are most readily available from internal Chinese sources.”
Second, the “oriental culture, the norm of favouring guanxi (relationship)” may lead Chinese scholars to tend to cite the work of their colleagues in the same institute who they meet frequently, or leading scholars in their own country who have important say in the proposal review and external evaluation for promotion.
It is also plausible that a high concentration of Chinese research on specific topics, as designated by Chinese funding agencies, can also lead to a higher clubbing effect in China.
Li Tang, Philip Shapira, and Jan Youtie, 2014, Is there a clubbing effect underlying Chinese research citation increases?, Working Paper, March 5