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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 20, 2010

J. Whoozat Sci.

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Posted by Derek

Not long ago I wrote about a Chinese journal that said that about a third of its submissions turned out to contain plagiarized material. Journal publishing in that country is apparently a real swamp, and the Chinese government has taken the publishers by surprise with an announcement that they're going to drain it:

Li Dongdong, a vice-minister of state and deputy director of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) — the powerful government body that regulates all publications in China — acknowledged that the country's scientific publishing had a "severe" problem, with "a big gap between quality and quantity", and needed reform.

Opening a meeting of scientific publishers in Shanghai on 7 September, Li announced that by January 2011, new regulations will be used to "terminate" weak journals.

Precisely how this reform will work is the subject of hot debate. . .News of the regulation startled many of the publishers at last week's meeting.

I'll bet it did, particularly those publishers who are turning out junk. And believe me, you know if you're publishing a crappy journal full of papers that no one reads. As that Nature News article goes on to detail, China is full of "campus journals", which exist only for the local grad students and the like to accumulate lines on their publication record. A colleague of mine used to call such titles "The Journal of Our Results", and that's right on target.

But while I can understand China's desire to upgrade its sometimes embarrassing scientific publishing world, I have to worry about the way that they're choosing to do it - not that it doesn't fit the best traditions of the Chinese government, mind you. This sit-still-while-we-fix-you approach may work in the short term, but if there's a demand for the Journal of Our Results (from authors, if not readers), then won't such titles just spring back up again under different names? As longtime readers here will easily be able to guess, I'd prefer a more market-oriented solution.

If the committees evaluating publishing records decided not to value such journals, much of their reason to exist would presumably vanish. While it's true that there's no perfect way to evaluate journals, a situation like China's - overrun with Journal of Whoozat Technical Colleges, 98% stocked with multi-part papers from the faculty of Whoozat - would seem to be waiting for everyone to just stop pretending. This let's-be-honest-here approach would let the people publishing this junk continue to exist, but they'd probably have to find a better business model.

As it is, just shutting these people down doesn't do anything for the let's-pretend side of the market, which I presume will continue to exist. And it'll probably be filled by the all-new Proceedings of the Whoozat Academy, Whoozat Letters, Acta Whoozatica, and who knows what else.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. processchemist on September 20, 2010 7:57 AM writes...

IMHO this is classic modern politics.
A wordwide known problem emerges (plagiarism, in this case), an announcement about heavy decisions to correct it is been made.
Note that until recent days the common word in management and business environments was that China is full of world class technologist that cost 1/5 of their western counterparts, and this kind of news coming from Nature can be a damage to the efficacy of this kind of hype.

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2. Anonymous on September 20, 2010 8:11 AM writes...

the country's scientific publishing had a "severe" problem, with "a big gap between quality and quantity", and needed reform

This condition also afflicts the US. Maybe not to the same extent, but it does.

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3. Chris D on September 20, 2010 8:12 AM writes...

The Journal of Our Results is the market-oriented solution, where the market is unfettered by cultural norms. What you're describing is a cultural shift in how shoddy publishing is viewed. Given Chinese culture, that seems like a tall order.

Tyler Cowen has a few interesting posts about how and why mediocrity dominates Italian academia, which might be relevant.

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4. MN on September 20, 2010 8:58 AM writes...

China is full of "campus journals", which exist only for the local grad students and the like to accumulate lines on their publication record. A colleague of mine used to call such titles "The Journal of Our Results", and that's right on target.

I kept thinking about this...and to what extent can we say that traditional papers didn't start as Journals of Our Results too?
Take a look at the number of foreign authors on classic journals as ACIEE and JACS and compare with number of German(ic)/American authors that were on those journals at their beginning. And if you cross with relevance for each article, I don't think the net result will be way more different than China's...

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5. MTK on September 20, 2010 9:29 AM writes...

I agree with those that believe China's problem isn't much different than the world's at large when it comes to publishing. Just look at the proliferation of Western journals and it's pretty self-evident.

Many people publish for publishing's sake. Simply to lengthen the rap sheet to gain street cred. The sad part is that if you don't do it, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to securing grants.

Until the funding agencies and the tenure committees start stressing quality over quantity this system, and the playing of it, will continue.

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6. DLIB on September 20, 2010 10:44 AM writes...


Right on...they are the consumers in that market. Simply remove the "investigator" line on those forms and let the scientific merit of the idea speak for itself. If it's a good idea then it's a reasonable bet the investigator proffering it will be able to perform it. This could remove so much of the tarting up of scientists.

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7. You're Pfizered on September 20, 2010 11:51 AM writes...

I'm pretty sure they could rename TL the Journal of Our Results without any impact on substance.

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8. milkshake on September 20, 2010 1:07 PM writes...

The problem starts with a formal requirement for faculty appointments/promotions that encourages scientists to pad up their publication list, and the institute management that chooses to look the other way when people start cutting corners.

I know of two PI chemists in Prague, sharing the same lab but working on completely unrelated synthetic projects. They have been adding mutually each other onto their papers - and in this way they effortlessly doubled their publication output. (And the research was not even faked).

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9. Donough on September 21, 2010 9:17 AM writes...

This kind of activity is not just for Chinese journals. While my orientation is engineering research in bulk chemical, I do see many introductions containing many 'over-lappings' of information, to the extent that unless the title or the results are novel I rarely read introduction.
More to the point what is often seen is not plagiarism but dishonesty in the quest to get money. People pad their results by saying that they are the best in the field with wither

a. Not checking the entire field - in material driven sciences one can 'ignore' results from other substances in a particular application. This puts the material rather than the application as the performance indicator which is not correct.
b. People say things like 'brilliant results' often without the faintest idea of what an actual brilliant result is.

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