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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

The Rise of a New Science Superpower?

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Since the turn of the 21st century, the number scientific papers published predominantly by Chinese researchers in any of the Nature journals has risen from six to nearly 150 according to a new index published by Nature on May 12. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Campuses such as Tsinghua University and Peking University have become world-class institutions and the overall volume of scientific publications from China has risen from roughly 20,000 in 2000 to 130,000 in 2010, according to Thomson-Reuters.


The rise of China as a scientific superpower seems assured, and President Hu Jintao has explicitly set a goal for the nation to become the world leader in research by 2020. But challenges remain: last year the British journal The Lancet noted some 70 fraudulent papers emanating from researchers at Jinggangshan University—the latest instances of significant scientific fraud that have led the Chinese government to attempt to curb such abuses. In fact, in February China's Ministry of Science and Technology revoked a national scientific award given to Li Liansheng, vice director of the National Engineering Research Center, when he was found to have plagiarized other researchers and fabricated data.


The pressure to commit such fraud is intense, according to surveys of Chinese scientists. Research grants, career advancement and the like are often tied to the number of publications authored by a given researcher—a strong incentive to inflate, exaggerate or fabricate one's output. Some skeptics even conjecture that the rising number of Nature publications in recent years has played a significant—and overlooked—role in the increasing number of published papers from China, simply by providing more outlets—and more demand—for such research.


Nonetheless, the absolute rise of science emanating from China is unquestionable. Similarly, there is no doubt that China is already serving as a living laboratory for many new technologies—from the build-out of advanced nuclear reactor designs to perfecting manufacturing techniques for photovoltaics. China is already the workshop of the world; and if it can stop fraud, soon it may also be the world's scientific laboratory.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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