Chinese universities received 8 of the top 10 points in one science ranking worldwide – nothing changed

University leaders pay close attention to comparative rankings such as those offered by Times Higher Education, ShanghaiRanking Consultancy and others. Rankings influence the number of matriculated students, attract talented faculty and authorize donations from wealthy donors. University leaders oppose them, and some schools “pull back” from them, but rankings have an impact.

A radical change in the data underlying the rankings is about to affect the world of rankings – largely in favor of China’s position.

For example, in early 2024, the CWTS group of the Center for Science and Technology Studies of Leiden University released new university rankings that add open data sources to the traditional curated list of elite journals that used to be the standard. The results show a world turned upside down for university rankings.

While Oxford, Stanford, Harvard and MIT would be on the list of universities with the highest scientific impact, eight universities from China are included in the list of the top 10 universities with a high scientific impact. Only Harvard and the University of Toronto are in the top 10.

What does this transformation mean for understanding academic improvement? I study the global research system and its contribution to social welfare. China’s rapid progress in science and technology, driven by investments in research and university strength, has alarmed the United States and other nations. There is growing concern that the US could lose its competitive advantage to an assertive competitor, with potential implications for national security, economic standing and global influence. These new ratings are likely to raise even more concerns.

A wider range of more sources

The rating programs draw heavily on quantitative assessments called “indicators.” A glance at the ShanghaiRaking criteria shows that it includes “papers indexed in major citation indexes.” The popular indexes come from a range of well-respected scholarly journals such as Cell, The Lancet and Chemical Reviews. The most popular index that collects information on these and other journals is the Web of Science Citation Index, or SCI, a product of careful standardization and data enrichment at Clarivate.

However, SCI only represents a portion of the work published worldwide. Among other criticisms, many deride the exclusivity of the SCI and its perceived Western bias.

But careful curation is the gold standard for academic indexing and one that journals and authors want to be a part of. Its value is replicable: It can be accessed multiple times using different search strategies and produce comparable results.

Reliance on curated databases is about to end with the introduction of rankings based on open data such as that collected by OpenAlex. OpenAlex claims to include over 100,000 journals – of widely varying qualities and editorial practices – compared to SCI’s 9,200. All the data in OpenAlex has been released to the public domain with the admirable goal of making research easily available to all. The upside is that this wider number becomes predatory journals that take advantage of researchers and undermine the quality and integrity of scholarly communication.

multiple yellow diggers positioned next to red flags with Chinese lettersmultiple yellow diggers positioned next to red flags with Chinese letters

Reflecting China’s research productivity

The number of scholarly articles appearing in the open databases has a major impact on China’s position in the open source rankings. Chinese scholars produce a large number of written works, some in English, some in Chinese; estimates of percentages for language range widely, but fluctuate around 50-50. As China has invested in education and increased its scientific and engineering capabilities, many more people are turning out for scholarly articles.

From a very small number in the 1980s, China will have 2.2 million scientists and engineers by 2023, based on UNESCO data. China’s scholarly output of science and engineering articles has shown a very rapid rise since the 1990s, with growth outpacing all other countries. Quality trumps quantity, but China is out-producing the US in total scientific publications on the Web of Science, by my count – a change in leadership not seen since the US overtook the UK in 1948.

Although the numbers are dated, when I counted Chinese scholarly publishing in 2010, my colleague and I estimated that China published about 1 million scientific papers that were not captured by the Web of Science between 2000 and 2009. That means that “counts” towards traditional rankings. These publications are counted in the new open databases. Many of the papers included in open source or open access journals will not be considered high quality; however, they are part of the written record.

Open access publishing services have grown rapidly and offer fast publication times, but there are questions about the quality of their journals. Open publishing services such as MDPI and Frontiers have a large number of Chinese contributors compared to those from other countries.

Open access services often include content from potential paper mills, businesses that make scholarly manuscripts for sale. Despite concerns about the reputation and editorial practices of these publishers and editors, there is little oversight. These services have flooded the publishing world with large numbers of lower quality articles.

Chinese researchers and their sponsoring institutions have placed a huge premium on publishing in international journals, even those hosted by dubious publishers. Citation stacking practices – where authors cite co-national works to raise their citation profiles – skewed to improve China’s performance.

China is trying to address malign practices. To its credit, the Chinese government recently announced the withdrawal of 17,000 Chinese-authored or co-authored articles. Efforts are underway to improve quality. Government payments to researchers for articles in classified journals are being censored.

Despite the quality issues, the numbers alone will propel China up the rankings lists. This rapid transition will enhance China’s position relative to the rest of the world. In itself, the rise does not represent a change in quality, status or output, but it will continue to stoke the fires of those who fear the rise of China in global circles of science, technology and innovation, and perhaps questioning ratings.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by Caroline Wagner, The Ohio State University

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Caroline Wagner does not work for, consult with, share in, or be funded by any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and she does not disclose any relevant connections beyond her academic appointment.

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