Chinese science: an open book?

china-scienceBy Anthony King, science journalist.

Chinese scientists are increasingly attracted to open access journals, particularly those with international reach and recognized kudos. With submissions from China on a steady rise, international publishers are eyeing up the market and beginning to tap into its vast potential.

Of course, the open access model is gaining ground throughout the world, with nearly 10,000 journals now giving readers free access to research papers. China is no exception as its drive to internationalize and promote its scientific achievements draws researchers to submit to quality open access publications.

Open access gets a boost

At the end of 2013, open access journals represented about 16% [1,370 journals] of all academic journals in China. Although this proportion is not remarkable in itself, uptake has been extremely rapid since 2009. Chinese researchers and officials have traditionally been conservative about who they choose to work with and how they publish. Prestige and reputation count a lot and, until recently, open access publications did not carry the requisite authority or reach. But in just a few years this attitude has changed dramatically.

Perhaps one of the biggest drivers for the upsurge in open access submissions is coming from the top–namely from policy-makers and research funders. Chinese researchers are already strongly encouraged by funding agencies to get involved in open access. A strong signal of change came in May 2015 at the Global Research Council meeting held in Beijing. Here, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China mandated researchers to make their work freely accessible within 12 months of publication.

“Internationalization is taken very seriously. Just do a search in PLOS One and you will see a huge increase in Chinese authors. On the policy side, it seems researchers can always request funding for ‘author pays’ open access publications,” observes Leslie Chan, an experienced open access practitioner and supporter at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, Canada, who founded Bioline International, a not-for-profit publishing cooperative.

“The Chinese Academy of Science and National Natural Science Foundation both announced support for an open access policy in 2014. That had a lot to do with their membership of the Global Research Council, an international body,” he explains. “These organizations take this back to their constituents and it becomes part of a strategy to be in harmony with the rest of the world in terms of major policy frameworks.”

Two years ago, Frontiers – an open access publisher headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland – received around 2% of submissions from China. But that doubled to 4% in 2014 and Executive Editor Fred Fenter says it could double again for 2015.

“Chinese authors realise that open access articles are immediately available and are more widely read than subscription articles. So they know they can disseminate their research to colleagues and make it more visible,” Fenter says. “There is some discussion about whether that dynamic leads to more citations. It probably does, but I think there is certainly that perception among Chinese scientists.”


Language barriers?


When traditional scientific publishers launched open access journals, they often simply replicated their existing publishing processes, except authors had to pay to publish. That’s not the case with Frontiers. It was engineered from the outset to take open access to new levels, with a rapid publishing time frame (around 84 days) and improved transparency.


Frontiers puts the people behind a research paper front and centre; authors and readers can see the identity of the associate editor and the reviewers. This acknowledges the contribution of the peer reviewer and offers a very public validation of the research.


Open access globally has been buffeted by several scandals, with fly-by-night titles taking author fees and giving very little in return. To counter this poor image, publishers emphasise their rigorous processes and standards. Fenter, for example, says that his message in China is one of standards: “We consistently publish journals like Frontiers in Plant Science, that are very highly ranked in terms of impact factors and these tend to become some of the largest volume journals in their citation category too.”


China’s centralised decision making has made it harder for indigenous open access startups, say commentators. “To start a new journal in China you must get an approval number and register. I don’t know how difficult it is, but its certainly bureaucratic,” says Chan.


“In China itself, there is no mega open access journal like PLOS or others, nor are there platforms like SciELO in Brazil or OpenEdition in France,” adds Joachim Schöpfel, senior lecturer in information and communication sciences at the Universite Charles-de-Gaulle in Lille, France, citing research in his book Learning from BRICS: Open Access to Scientific Information in Emerging Countries, published in May 2015.


The most important disciplines for open access in China are medical science and public health with 313 journals; this is followed by industrial technology (engineering), astronomy/earth science and natural sciences. Today Chinese researchers publish at around twice the rate Americans publish in open access journals. Therefore, demand for reputable publications with a global readership is strong–nevertheless, in 2014 96% of open access journals published in the country were published in Chinese.


Opening the market


In mid-September Fenter will visit the Conference of the Chinese Neuroscience Society in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province; a colleague will travel to The Cold Spring Harbor Asia Tumour Immunology and Immunotherapy meeting in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.


Both meetings are organised around subject areas for which the editorial strengths of Frontiers match a dynamic field in China. The publisher recently launched journals in materials science, as well as in a number of engineering fields, and expects a growing number of contributions from Chinese research institutions.


Frontiers plans to establish a small vanguard in China to provide information and promote its expertise and editorial programme. Eventually the publisher hopes it will have an editorial team in China that can act as a central hub for teams of editors across the country. Its journals are community driven, with more than 55,000 world-renowned scientists and scholars as editors. Already hundreds of editors are based in China.


As China embraces the global trend for open access – albeit for different reasons, perhaps – scientific publishers such as BioMed Central, Springer, Nature Publishing Group and John Wiley are stepping up their Chinese operations. Fenter cannot put it plainer than this: “If we don’t go to China soon, China will come to us.”

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