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August 24, 2011
What Are Impact Factors Doing to Chinese Science?
Here's a useful (and rather brave) editorial from Chinese chemist Nai-Xing Wang in Nature. He's pointing out that the government's funding agencies are taking a crude and harmful approach to who gets research support: publish, and publish according to their schemes, or flippin' well perish:
The biggest problem remains the obsession with journal impact factors. Generally speaking, articles in journals with high impact factors are judged to appeal most to readers, but not every paper published in a high-impact-factor journal is high quality, and papers published in lower-ranked journals are never worthless. Yet some administrators in China take a very crude approach: high-impact-factor publications mean excellent work.
Research proposals are judged according to the impact factor of a scientist's previous publications. (And referees are usually selected on these criteria too.) Worse, the salaries of my chemistry colleagues go up or down depending on a complex mathematical formula based on the impact factor of the journals in which we publish our work — which we must supply in a detailed list.
Now, this sort of thing has been going on around the scientific world for a while, and it's going to be hard to put a complete stop to it. But the Chinese system that's described is about the most blatant that I've come across. The effects are pernicious:
If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer science. It is changed to a field of fame and game. There are other effects too. Administrators in almost every university and research institute like to evaluate researchers by their papers at the end of each year. As a result, chemists often choose easy research topics that can be written up inside a year. . .
You get what you subsidize; I don't think that law is ever broken. And if the Chinese government wants people to crank out lots of papers in what they feel are high-end journals, well, that's what people will do. But if they want something useful to come out of all that effort, well, things might need to be adjusted a bit. But "useful" is a slippery word. For the people who are gainfully employed in keeping the current system running, it's just about as useful as it can be the way it is.
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