China must quickly reform how it evaluates chemistry research, to encourage high-quality work — not heaps of published papers, argues Nai-Xing Wang, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
The country's administrators tend to judge the quality of scientific research solely by journal impact factors, Wang says. Articles published in journals with a high impact factor are considered excellent. Research proposals — and the referees who evaluate them — are judged based on the impact factor of previous publications, and salaries are calculated using information on the impact factor of published work.
This is a "very crude approach" to evaluating scientific research, says Wang. One problem is that impact factors measure how frequently the average paper is cited in a particular period, so the more popular the research area the easier it is to achieve a high impact factor.
"If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer science. It is changed to a field of fame and game," he writes.
Having this narrow view of chemistry is damaging in other ways too. It encourages chemists to choose easy research topics that can be written up quickly, or to split a project into smaller parts for publications.
These practices are not unique to China, but are particularly serious there, says Wang. And halfway through the International Year of Chemistry, it is time for the country to move forward.
One solution could be to judge researchers on the number of citations a paper receives two years after publication, "to see whether their work stands the test of time". Pushing chemists to publish in international journals is another option, but the work must be substantial, not just well presented. And pure chemistry should not be overlooked in light of applied research.
Nature 476, 253 (2011)