Annual Meeting Reports

Understanding Scientific Research in China: Developing your Market

Philippa Benson, of the Charlesworth Group (Education and Author Services) first went to China in 1985; she lived there for 2 years, from 1986 to 1988, to earn her designation as a foreign expert in China communication. She has given presentations to Chinese authors at research institutions about navigating publishing systems and now makes a point of giving such presentations to editors who are under increasing pressure to improve impact factors and become financially self-sustaining. Benson has worked with editors of Chinese journals, graduate students, and physicians at research institutions. At the time of the CSE meeting, she had just returned from 2 months in China.

With a land mass not much bigger than that of the United States, China has five financially and politically autonomous regions (Tibet, Xinjiang Uyghur, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, and Zhuang). Water resources are scarce in China on a per capita basis, and there are still major challenges with respect to food and water delivery. Regional differences are present, just as they are in the United States. For instance, there is typically no centralized heating south of the Yangtze, whereas north of the Yangtze there is central heating. Most key universities are in the eastern region that lies south of the Yangtze. Although five distinct languages are spoken (each unintelligible to speakers of the other four), there is one written language. Typically, a Chinese author writing in English is writing in his or her third language (first is the mother tongue, then Mandarin, and then English). Since mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) “simplified” its written language characters in 1956, character strokes are written in a specific order (top to bottom, then left to right, horizontal before vertical, and character-spanning strokes last). It is necessary to memorize correlations between shape, meaning, and sound because many words look similar but have different sounds and meanings.

When working with Chinese authors, one should keep in mind some facts about Chinese education systems. For China, exact copying is the primary pedagogic method, and loose copying is a regular and usual form of learning. Imitation of language in writing and speaking is a primary method of elementary and intermediate language learning and is considered the highest compliment. In China, most adults are taught English by non–native English speakers, so most people develop better reading than writing or speaking skills. Furthermore, most are taught little about cultural or professional context. Government-developed curricula are used for teaching English, and students are required to pass national tests to graduate from college or graduate school (college is levels 1–6, and graduate school is levels 7–8 ). Writing skills are evaluated primarily for correctness of grammar and syntax, particularly for technical writing. Researchers who copy construction of sentences by cutting and pasting do not understand that such practices can lead to plagiarism. A major difference between China and other countries is that residents of China generally have little access to the Internet.

From 1996 to 2000, publication output in China increased by more than 20%. Research and development spending is on a steep trajectory, second only to that of the United States. First- or second-author publication in a high-impact journal is required to get one’s PhD in China; in fact, some institutions require two or three publications. In general, to advance in their careers in urban hospitals, Chinese MDs must get PhDs. Currently, the job market is fierce in China. Urban MDs see 50–100 patients per day even while pursuing PhDs. Individuals are not free to choose their own fields of research but are told what research to perform.

To aid non–native-English authors, Benson recommends that journals post “Publishing 101” guidelines (on plagiarism, logic of citations, introductions, and other areas) on their Web sites. Also valuable are examples of abstracts, introductions, and cover letters. It is helpful if editors clarify their rationale in decision letters. For example, editors should make decisions clear and provide nuggets of advice (for instance, “Do not resubmit, because . . .” or “This is a good paper except . . .”). They should think about publishing editorials that speak directly to issues relating to international authors, describing the review process and explaining the value of “nonacceptance”. Finally, many journals provide vetted resources, such as online writing services and language-polishing services.

Journal leaders are advised to revise and update their instructions for authors and their scope and goals statements. One suggestion is to “Blare out what you want!” in the revised guidelines. When guidelines are undergoing revision, editors should consider collecting data regarding reasons for rejections and addressing such issues.

Authors should be taught to read the instructions for authors before deciding to submit. PhD students’ reading comprehension of English in China is excellent inasmuch as they have completed at least level 6 of English-language learning. The last pearl of wisdom: “A good scientist is not necessarily a good science writer (in any language)!”