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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Orientation of Research Assessment: Quality or Quantity?
August 25, 2011 - 4:45pm

“Every faculty member is under heavy research load, and the current system doesn’t encourage cooperation,” explained Prof. Wang Hongcai, a higher education scholar at Xiamen University responding to the question, “Why is there so little interdisciplinary and cross-institutional educational research in China?” at a seminar in Beijing last March. In fact, this situation exists in other disciplines and fields of study as well.

Most top universities in China have placed explicit demands for research publications on their academic staff. For example, some universities require that a faculty member of social sciences or humanities publishes at least two articles in CSSCI journals each year; faculty members in science, engineering and medical science cannot supervise graduate students and cannot be promoted if they haven’t published a sufficient number of articles in SSCI and/or EI journals during the past assessment cycle. Local colleges and universities have made similar assessment and accountability regulations. In this context, academic staff have to publish more and more articles. According to ISI, China has become the second largest country for articles in science and technology published in international journals, closely following the United States. Given the huge number of researchers, China’s science and technology publications in international journals might exceed USA in the coming decade.

While the scenario of fast growing academic publications is applauded, the demanding regulations of quantity oriented assessment also has shortcomings. Research outcomes flourish in quantity with limited quality improvement. Owing to rigid demands for publication every year of an assessment cycle, the number of articles published in domestic and international journals by faculty and graduate students has increased dramatically. For example, five “985” universities published large numbers of SCI articles in 2009, in the following order: Zhejiang University (3872); Shanghai Jiaotong University (3140); Tsinghua University (2758); Peking University (2544) and Sichuan University (2061). The number of SCI articles published by China’s top universities has approached or exceeded prestigious traditional universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge. However, the originality and quality of journal articles contributed by Chinese researcher still badly needs improvement.

Academic staff is under increasing pressure. More and more academic institutions have established rigid research regulations and the assessment cycle is short (usually annually). “Publish or perish” has become a real phenomenon at China’s universities. If a young faculty member doesn’t publish an adequate number of journal articles during an assessment cycle, he or she might be admonished or face a salary reduction. In some universities, if a faculty member doesn’t publish an adequate number of journal articles in two successive assessment circles, he or she might be dismissed. Owing to this kind of pressure, working conditions in the academic environment are deteriorating.

A volatile style of study is being fomented. In order to avoid punishment, many faculty members have to make “short, superficial, and quick” articles. Even worse, the quantity oriented research assessment leads to academic corruption. In early 2009, a highly productive top university admitted that fourteen articles published by its staff were involved in fraud. Among those fourteen problematic articles, eight were published by the same associate professor. During his Ph.D. study and pos-doctoral fellowship at this university, he published a long list of international journal articles, which led to his appointment there. Unfortunately, eight articles were involved in fabrication, plagiarism, and submitted simultaneously to multiple publications. He was fired by the university, but later appointed by a local university.

If China wishes to achieve its ambitious goals of building an innovative country and a strong higher education system, it must establish a rational scientific research assessment system. The first step is to alter the quantitative orientation of research assessment. As Prof. Chen Jiaer, former president of Peking University and former president of National Natural Science Foundation of China has pointed out, “The utilitarian orientation of research assessment must be changed and a research assessment system that is oriented to quality, to making a significant contribution and that is in accord with laws of science and technology should be perfected and put into practice.”


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