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Behind the rising influence of chinese research

June 27, 2022

By Zhuoling Liao, Pan Zhang

What’s driving the growth in Chinese journal articles? And what influences an author’s choice of journal? Here’s what societies and editors need to know.

The research market in China has seen significant growth in recent years, leading to a rapid rise in both article volume and quality. This brings huge opportunities for any journal wishing to publish the world’s leading content. As you consider your publishing strategy, it’s essential to be aware of what’s going on in China and what’s influencing author choice in this increasingly important market.

Growth in volume and quality

As you will likely know only too well, the number of articles originating from China has grown significantly in recent years, rising by over 51% in the period 2016–2020. In terms of annual article output, China surpassed the US back in 2016 and the EU in 2019, according to data in Scopus.

The less known but arguably more important news is the pace at which article quality is developing in China. The quality of Chinese research has at times been viewed as below par. Not anymore. China’s overall Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) rose from 0.89 in 2016 to 1.12 in 2020, meaning that the quality of research published in China is 12% above the world average. (FWCI is the ratio of the total citations actually received by the denominator’s output, and the total citations that would be expected based on the average of the subject field.) Reflecting this growth in quality, Chinese authors are now more likely than ever to publish the world’s “best” content; in 2020, they contributed 29% of the articles published in the world’s top 10% journals (by CiteScore(opens in new tab/window) percentile).

As for choice of business model, today, almost a third of articles with a corresponding author from China are published gold open access. Consequently, although China is not necessarily viewed as a country actively advocating for open access, authors are publishing open access in very large numbers, supported by funds of up to 20,000 RMB (about $3,000) per article (in 2020) for appropriate articles. In fact, it is projected that China’s gold open access article volume in 2023 will exceed half of the US’s total article volume, according to Scopus data.

In the image above : China’s overall Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) rose from 0.89 in 2016 to 1.12 in 2020, meaning that the quality of research published in China is 12% above the world average. Reflecting this growth in quality, Chinese authors are now more likely than ever to publish the world’s “best” content; in 2020, they contributed 29% of the articles published in the world’s top 10% journals (by CiteScore percentile).

Subject focus

In China, Engineering is the top subject area — by considerable margin — in terms of total publication numbers. This is then followed by Materials Science, Computer Science, Physics & Astronomy, and Medicine, which all saw constant growth between 2016 and 2019.

This chart shows the top five subjects in Chinese publications from 2016-2020

This chart shows the top five subjects in Chinese publications from 2016-2020: Engineering, Materials Science, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, and Medicine.

Changes to Chinese government research policies

However, other than in medicine, the growth slowed down in 2020. It’s likely that the global pandemic has influenced this trend somewhat, as well as changes to Chinese research and higher education evaluation systems. The latter refers to a 2020 government initiative(opens in new tab/window) whereby a Chinese researcher’s contribution (and subsequent funding and career advancement prospects) is judged less on absolute numbers of articles and citations and more on their overall contribution. In the case of basic researchers, for instance, a system of “representative works” has been introduced, whereby only a limited number of a researcher’s or an institution’s most important papers are considered as part of their assessment.

Drivers behind choice of publication

Multiple factors influence a Chinese author’s decision regarding where to publish their research. A survey among Chinese researchers in 2021 showed that journal reputation and journal impact metrics are the top factors considered by Chinese authors.

Factors driving journal choice Chart

The number of authors in Scival is a deduplicated count of Scopus author IDs for all authors on the publications. (Source: SciVal and a survey conducted by Elsevier’s STM Journals China Program team in 2021)

It was particularly notable that Chinese authors have a higher preference to publish articles in journals with Impact Factors, compared to authors from the US and UK. This is likely due to the historical ways in which Chinese researchers have been evaluated for funding and career promotion. Whether the recent changes in government research policies will influence this in a material way remains to be seen.

In a further study on author priorities in China, we see that speed of publication (including peer review) is particularly important. Expectations on speed are higher in China than elsewhere in the world, and slow speed is often a key reason for not submitting to a journal.

Importance of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Journal Ranking

Zhuoling Liao presents at the Institutes of Science and Development

Zhuoling Liao, Elsevier’s China Program Director and co-author of this article, presents at the Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

This focus on impact metrics is, in part, driven by the CAS Journal Ranking system, developed by the National Science Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NSLC)(opens in new tab/window). The CAS Journal Ranking details the most influential journals by impact metrics and is viewed by Chinese researchers as the go-to list when considering where to publish their articles.

CAS Journal Ranking

The CAS Journal Ranking details the most influential journals by impact metrics and is viewed by Chinese researchers as the go-to list when considering where to publish their articles.

In an attempt to avoid what some would regard as the misleading and incomparable nature of Impact Factors across different disciplines, the CAS Journal Ranking demonstrates a journal's impact within its corresponding domain. As an evolving analysis tool, in 2019 the CAS Journal Ranking developed a new indicator to assess a journal’s impact: the Citation Success Index (CSI).

2021 CAS Journal Ranking

The CAS Journal Ranking demonstrates a journal's impact within its corresponding domain. As an evolving analysis tool, in 2019 the CAS Journal Ranking developed a new indicator to assess a journal’s impact: the Citation Success Index (CSI).

Unlike the Impact Factor, which depends on the total number of journal citations, the Citation Success Index focuses on the broadness and the shape of citation distributions (including any one-off highly cited articles). For example, The(opens in new tab/window) owed its high IF of 5.381 in 2018 (and 2/123 ranking) to a few highly-cited articles. Taking this into account, TheAmerican Statistician was ranked a low Tier 4 in the 2019 CAS Journal Ranking.

Working in the opposite way, the CAS Early Warning List of International Journals(opens in new tab/window) has been created to encourage Chinese researchers not to publish in “undesirable” journals. The relatively limited number of journals included — 64 journals in 2020 and 36 journals in 2021 — are selected according to various factors, including those that operate predatory-like behavior.

Summary

  • Chinese authors are — or almost certainly will be — increasingly important in terms of the volume output of your journal.

  • The quality of articles from Chinese authors is increasing, with many of the world’s best articles now originating from China.

  • Chinese authors are actively publishing in gold open access journals.

  • Chinese authors have historically had a higher preference to publish articles in journals with Impact Factors, compared to authors from the US and UK, and greatly value publication speed.

  • Chinese authors are influenced by the CAS Journal Ranking, besides Impact Factor.

Implications for your journal

Working with your publisher, we recommend you consider the following:

  • Take the time to understand the author decision-making process in China.

  • Expand your academic network in China and build long-term relationships with key individuals and communities.

  • Ensure editorial board make-up reflects the importance of Chinese content to encourage submissions, enable your journal to be truly internationally collaborative, identify emerging trends from China, and have a pool of reviewers available that are well positioned to review papers.

  • Focus on dedicated China author submission marketing (recognizing the importance of social media channels such as WeChat), including tailored author workshops.

  • Focus editorial and production practices to appeal to a Chinese audience, including practices that prioritize publication speed and, where appropriate, incorporating language editing.

Contributors

Portrait photo of Pan Zhang

PZ

Pan Zhang