Analysis of Chinese universities’ financial incentives for academic publications

by Kevin Prest
East Asia
24/07/2017
HE

Many Chinese universities offer large cash bonuses for papers published in leading academic journals. Recent research into these bonus structures can help UK institutions to understand Chinese researchers' incentives and work more smoothly with Chinese partners.

Effective collaboration often depends on understanding your partner’s incentives. In the field of academic research, many Chinese universities offer large cash bonuses for researchers who publish papers in leading academic journals, which can make up a large share of a Chinese researcher’s total salary.

The size of these bonus payments means that they can have a large effect on decisions made by these researchers. A recent paper has analysed how Chinese universities’ incentive policies for academic research publications are structured which may be useful for UK universities looking to establish research partnerships with Chinese institutions.

The paper, by Wei Quan, Bikun Chen and Fei Shu, presents the landscape of China’s publication reward policies and its trend since the late 1990s. It presents several key findings:

  • The financial rewards for publications in leading journals are very large compared to academic staff salaries in China. The reward for publishing a paper in top journal in a particular academic field is similar to the average yearly salary for a newly-hired professor, while the cash award for an article in Nature or Science article is up to 20 times a university professor’s average annual salary.
  • To be eligible for incentives, most universities require that a paper be published in a journal indexed in the Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE), the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI), the Conference Proceedings Citation Index (CPCI), or the Engineering Index (EI). Publications in journals not covered by these indices – including the large majority of Chinese journals – are “almost ignored”.
  • Incentives for publishing in leading journals have grown strongly over the last decade, but payments for papers in less-prestigious journals have remained steady or even declined.
  • Contrary to what may be expected, China’s elite research-intensive universities generally offer lower incentives for publications than provincial universities with less research output.

Average Amount of Cash Awards* for a Paper Published in Selected Journals by University Tier (2016)

 

Project 985 universities Project 211 universities Non-211 universities
Nature, Science $38,846 $53,823 $63,187
PNAS $2,704 $4,113 $5,488
PLOS One $401 $783 $1,661
MIS Quarterly $1,924 $3,251 $5,150
JASIST $1,465 $2,695 $3,902
Journal of Documentation $817 $1,377 $2,102
Library Hi Tech $283 $679 $1,172
LIBRI $216 $434 $642

* All amounts are the full amount (in USD) awarded to the first author.

Source: Quan, Chen & Shu

  • At the majority of Chinese universities only the first listed author on a paper can receive an incentive payment, while in some other cases authors beyond the first receive a lower share of the bonus.
  • Most Chinese universities now set incentives based on a journal’s position according to Journal Citation Reports. However, rather than the original JCR quartile ranking the most common segmentation used is one made by the Chinese Academy of Sciences which places the top 5 per cent of journals into the top tier, 5-20 per cent into the next tier, 20-50 per cent into the following tier, and the remaining 50 per cent into the bottom tier.
  • Other systems that were formerly popular and are still used by some universities include incentives directly based on a journal’s impact factor (either directly with a base payment multiplied by impact factor or based on thresholds set by the university) and flat-rate payments regardless of impact factor. In recent years payments based directly on the number of citations a paper receives have become more popular, but are still much less common than those based on the journal’s impact factor.

 

These incentives are designed to encourage publications in particular classes of journals, and their strong effect on Chinese academics’ income means these academics can be expected to pay close attention to their university’s bonus structure. For example, the research finds that after China’s first cash-reward policy for papers published in journals indexed by the Web of Science (WoS) was introduced by Nanjing University in 1990, that institution was the top Chinese university in terms of WoS-indexed papers for seven years in a row. This was probably not a coincidence.

Financial incentives are of course not the only factor affecting Chinese researchers’ decisions – as in other countries, decisions on professional advancement are also strongly dependant on research output. In general, these decisions are guided by same principles that determine bonus payment policies, with publications in high-impact journals given high priority while those in domestic Chinese journals are typically seen as having little value.

For a UK university or academic, understanding the incentive structure can help to work more smoothly with Chinese partners. In some cases, relationships can be improved by helping Chinese partners to meet their goals without negatively affecting the UK side’s interests. In other cases, where different incentives could cause conflicts, it is best to be aware of potential issues in advance rather than being surprised by an unexpected disagreement.

In particular, consequences of the findings listed above may include:

  • Although the number of publications is an important factor for academics everywhere, Chinese academics can be expected to have an even greater focus on this than their counterparts in other countries.
  • The choice of journal where Chinese academics choose to publish is likely to be strongly affected by their institution’s bonus structure, which might not always line up with the UK side’s expectations.
  • The payment of bonuses to first authors may mean that Chinese academics place more importance on the first author position than might otherwise be expected.

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