Chinese science comes of age

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As well as publishing more and better science, China is increasingly committed to open science, writes Ed Gerstner

Most people like to think that their nations are at centre of things in the world. For China, this is more than just an aspiration – the Chinese word for China, Zhongguo, literally means ‘Middle Kingdom’.

This goes beyond its place in the world as the most populous nation – numbering over 1.35 billion people – or one of its oldest civilizations – having been unified by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE. China is immensely proud of its scientific tradition – a tradition that produced the ‘four great inventions’ of the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing, not to mention cast iron, negative numbers, India ink and more. But although it stumbled in the 19th and for much of the 20th century, Chinese science is making a comeback.

At a conference on scientific and technological work held in Shanghai in January 1963, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai called on China’s scientists and engineers to advance its capability in the fields of agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology, which he referred to as ‘The Four Modernisations’. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping set about to realise Zhou’s vision through a massive programme of economic reform.

For past two decades, double-digit year-on-year increases in China’s spending on research and development (R&D) have seen it overtake Europe in 2013. And by 2020 it is expected to outspend the US.

That investment seems to be paying off. In 1997, fewer than 2.5 per cent of the original research articles published in journals included in the Science Citation Index were co-authored by researchers based in China. In 2006, China’s contribution to the scientific literature had grown to overtake that of the Germany, the UK, France and Japan, making it second only to the United States. By 2014, this doubled again, bringing China’s contribution to 19 per cent of the articles listed in the SCI, compared to that of the US of around 25 per cent.

Next year, the country’s largest science funder, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The NSFC’s annual budget has grown from just ¥80 million RMB (£8 million GBP) in 1986 to an expected ¥22 billion RMB (equivalent to about £2.2 billion GPB) in 2015. It now funds 60 per cent of China’s pure scientific research, or about one tenth of the world’s scientific output measured in numbers of papers.

Of course, quantity is not the same as quality. For most of the 20th century, the number of papers published in high-impact journals like Nature and Science each year from authors in China could be counted on one hand. Of the top 0.1 per cent most-cited articles published across all journals in 1997, only four had any co-authors based in China. But here too, China has made remarkable progress. Last year, that number was 269 articles, or 21 per cent of the top 0.1 per cent most-cited papers published in 2014. According to the 2013 Nature Index, its contribution to research in the world’s leading journals is now second only to the US.

None of this has escaped the notice of publishers. To help us better serve the needs of the rapidly growing Chinese scientific community, in 2012 we at Nature Publishing Group launched our first mainland China office in Shanghai. In the past three years, our editors have visited thousands of professors, academicians and researchers at over 80 institutes, in more 40 cities throughout greater China. Our editorial presence has grown to make Shanghai the third largest of our offices after London and New York.

As well as publishing more and better science, China is increasingly committed to open science. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was among the earliest signatories to the ‘Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities’ that established many of the founding principles of the open access movement.

In March 2014, CAS and the NSFC have both issued statements encouraging the scientists they support to publish the results of their research in open access journals. And in May of the same year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said: ‘Open access to scientific knowledge and the nurturing of next generation researchers are what are needed nowadays and fit well with our future direction.’

What’s more, they’re putting their money where their mouth is. Nature Publishing Group’s 2015 Author Insights Survey found that the 1,445 Chinese authors surveyed were much more likely to receive support to publish their research via open access than their global colleagues, and an increasing proportion are choosing to do so exclusively. Some 20 per cent of authors based at Chinese institutions had published exclusively via an open access model over the last three years (up from 14 per cent in 2014) a much higher proportion than the equivalent of authors in Europe and North America (6 per cent). Only 11 per cent of authors in China said that they did not know how much budget they had for publication costs, compared to 18 per cent for the rest of the world. And it shows. Ever since the launch of our flagship open access journal, Nature Communications, in 2010, Chinese scientists have consistently chosen to publish open access more than researchers from elsewhere in the world.

How all of this will be affected by changes in the global economic climate is of course difficult to predict. What is clear, though, is that the government knows that China’s prosperity depends on it continuing to develop an economy that is based on knowledge and innovation. The strength of its commitment to science and technology, then, is likely to continue for some years to come.  

Ed Gerstner is head of open research and executive editor for Nature Publishing Group, Greater China