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China rises to first place in most cited papers

For the first time, China has slightly edged out the United States in the number of most cited papers, a key measure of research impact, according to a Japanese science policy institute. The milestone provides fresh evidence that China’s scholarship, known for its burgeoning quantity, is catching up in quality as well. “People are writing off China, [saying] they’re putting out a lot of stuff but it’s not good quality,” says Caroline Wagner, who studies science policy and innovation at Ohio State University, Columbus. “That’s just short-sighted.”

Scholars disagree about the best methodology for measuring publications’ impact, however, and other metrics suggest the United States is still ahead—but barely.

For the new report, Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) tallied the top 1% papers in terms of citations, a rarified stratum inhabited by many Nobel laureates. Many such elite articles have authors from multiple countries, however, which complicates the analysis. In one study, NISTEP used a method called “fractional counting” to divide the credit. If, for example, one French and three Swedish institutions contributed to a paper, France received 25% of the credit and Sweden 75%.

Using that measure, China accounted for 27.2% of the most cited papers published in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and the United States for 24.9%. Next was the United Kingdom, with 5.5%; Japan was in 10th place. (U.S. researchers were still slightly ahead when NISTEP used a less fine-grained method that credits every country that contributed to a highly cited paper equally, regardless of how many of its institutions were involved.)

Cao Cong, a science policy scholar at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China, says the methodology may overstate China’s contributions to internationally co-authored papers. “The question is who—the Chinese or their international collaborators—led the studies,” he says.

The question is who—the Chinese or their international collaborators—led the [high-impact] studies.

  • Cao Cong
  • University of Nottingham, Ningbo

Still, China’s rising production of top-cited papers is “remarkable,” NISTEP says; 2 decades ago it only ranked 13th in the fractional counting metric.

In 2016, China passed the United States to become the world leader in the number of published papers. But critics have faulted the quality of Chinese research, pointing to policies—now being phased out—that provided professional rewards for authors based on the sheer number of papers published. They also noted that China-based paper mills, which provide researchers with authorship slots in exchange for money, appear to be growing in number. But the new study shows China is getting better at doing the kind of top-notch science that gets cited by many researchers.

Other measures of impact still put the United States ahead. The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022, a report published by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in January, addressed one problem with reports such as NISTEP’s: By counting numbers of highly cited papers, they favor big countries and those that spend more on research, just as big countries tend to do better in Olympic medal rankings. NSF instead measured the share of each country’s papers that are highly cited, which allows for comparisons across countries regardless of how much they publish. Its analysis showed U.S. papers were highly influential: Of those published in 2018, more than twice as many ended up among the 1% most cited papers as expected based on the country’s total output. China published 20% more top-cited papers than would be expected. (Several countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, that publish fewer papers overall ranked ahead of both the United States and China on this measure.)

The United States and China were essentially tied in yet another study, published in Scientometrics in 2019 by Wagner and colleagues, that used a different method. Like the new report from Japan, it found that China published somewhat more papers in the top 1% most cited than the United States that year. But on a score for actual-versus-expected numbers of such papers, the margin between the two countries was not statistically significant.

Another paper, published by Wagner and others in 2020, concluded China’s research is slightly more innovative than the world average. That study tracked how often papers’ reference lists included atypical combinations of journals in disparate fields as a proxy for innovative ideas.

The impact of publications is just one measure of a country’s scientific prowess, however. The United States still leads in other indicators, such as research spending and the number of doctorates awarded. But China leads on others, such as patent applications—and there’s little doubt China’s scientific enterprise is catching up with the rest of the world at an unprecedented speed.

Source: Science Mag