China Incentivizes Researchers from Overseas to Publish in bid to Enhance Nation’s Status

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prominent scientific journals such as Nature are seen.

China has offered monetary rewards to researchers who publish papers in prominent scientific journals, and even set publication quotas for Japanese and other researchers participating in the country’s Thousand Talents Plan, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

The researchers have been asked to have their papers published particularly in world-renowned scientific journals, such as Nature and Science. The number of papers published in such journals is said to be an indicator of a nation’s scientific level, illustrating China’s desire to become a global power in science and technology.

The Yomiuri Shimbun has previously found that at least 44 Japanese researchers have been involved in the Thousand Talents Plan, a project to recruit capable researchers from overseas. Several of them provided insights into the project, including the quotas for publications.

Overtaking the U.S.

Toru Takahata, a 43-year-old who has participated in the project since around 2016, is a professor at Zhejiang University who is researching neurosciences, including neurogenetics. “It’s quite tough, as we’re asked to submit two papers to prominent scientific journals,” he said.

Every year, Chinese universities check the achievements of their researchers by scoring their performance via such means as the number of publications. If the researchers get high scores and their papers are published in renowned journals, their pay could increase, according to sources.

When Takahata became a professor at Zhejiang University, he was asked during his tenure to submit two papers to publications such as the British journal Nature and the American journal Science, and sister publications that carry high-level research papers. Since his papers have not been published in such journals yet, he has been repeatedly urged to achieve the quota at an annual review.

Even when using data from previous research conducted outside China, Takahata said he was requested to publish papers under the name of the Chinese university. “Many researchers have published their papers with the name of Chinese universities even though the data was obtained from research conducted in other countries,” he said. “I think this is reflective of the large number of papers produced in China.”

According to Japan’s Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, China overtook the United States for the first time from 2016-18 in having the most science papers published. During this period, China accounted for about 306,000 science papers annually on average. Japan, which had ranked second in 2001-03, dropped to fourth with about 65,000 papers published.

In some cases, large rewards are said to have been offered to researchers who published papers.

“Some researchers received a reward of about ¥15 million after their papers were published in Nature and Science,” said Yutaka Saito, a 72-year-old professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and an expert on zoo-ecology who participated in the Thousand Talents Plan at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences for three years through 2016.

During his time with the project, Saito spent most of the year in China conducting joint research with local researchers. According to Saito, he finished about 15 papers during the three-year period, but he was constantly pressured by the university to write papers that would qualify for more prominent scientific journals.

“I felt it was like a world of money worship where a certain amount of money is paid for each paper,” Saito recalled. “There was a dodgy atmosphere in which as long as papers were published, they were acceptable even though the data was a bit sketchy.”

Quotas in contracts

Japanese universities do not usually impose quotas on the number of publications when hiring researchers. In some cases in China, however, such quotas are clearly stated in contracts.

Akiyoshi Osaka, 73, a professor emeritus of materials chemistry at Okayama University, participated in the project at Henan University of Science and Technology from 2016 to 2018. His contract stated that he had to publish three papers a year.

“I spent the years pressuring myself to achieve the quota, set as my obligation,” Osaka said. However, as he was present at the university for only about three months a year, he was usually busy supervising his students. As a result, he was only able to publish two papers during the three-year period.