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The Chinese government has signaled that it will downgrade the importance of Science Citation Index (SCI) research metrics in assessments of academics and universities and, potentially, funding decisions.

Guidelines, issued jointly by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology in the form of a 10-point directive, discourage institutions from rewarding individuals and departments based primarily on how many articles they have in the SCI and suggest that a lack of SCI papers should not be a barrier to granting degrees or qualifications. They also say institutions should stop the practice of paying financial bonuses for publication. SCI, which is owned by Clarivate Analytics, is one of the world’s main bibliometric indexes of published research, covering thousands of the world’s top journals.

“It is a significant policy change that will affect not only evaluation systems for doctoral students, faculty members and researchers at the institutional level, but also the doctoral-degree awarding system,” Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, told Times Higher Education.

Shen Wenqin, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at Peking University, also voiced concern about the plan’s potential consequences. “If this policy is seriously implemented, it will have a great impact on the entire higher education system -- in evaluations, teacher recruitment and doctoral training,” he said.

The policy change comes during an unprecedented boom in Chinese research. In 2019, China was ranked second worldwide in the Web of Science Group’s list of highly cited researchers, behind only the U.S. As recently as 1973, China published only one SCI paper.

“This is not to say that China did not have scientific research capabilities at the time,” Shen said. “But it shows that China was then separated from the international academic community.”

Today, the opposite is true. Chinese universities’ aggressive drive for research citations, which have quickly bolstered them in global rankings, has led to what the new government document calls a problem of “SCI supremacy.” SCI authorship has now become a core consideration in job evaluations and funding decisions, which has led to an “excessive pursuit” of such citations.

The shift away from SCI citations has been at least a few years in the making. The government directive cites comments on the issue made by President Xi Jinping in 2017.

Li Guojie, former head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology, has long been critical of SCI-dominated assessments. He told Times Higher Education that the policy was a good first step in a larger process. “It is well intended, but how talent is being evaluated is still a problem. It will take time to cultivate a good academic environment. SCI is just one aspect of evaluation.”

Shen said that one possible reason for the policy change was public dissatisfaction with the current research system. “The government has invested huge amounts of money on scientific research, but universities and research institutions have not performed very well in solving practical social problems,” he said.

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