Every now and again you’ll find something in the Indian press about China in which they fawn over Shanghai as the symbol of all that is going right with China. We recently came across more of these observations, no doubt occasioned, at least indirectly, by the recent launch of China’s first lunar probe.
The lead paragraph of a Calcutta Telegraph article reads:
China has outpaced India in science in two decades and acquired a staggering lead that keeps widening, the most comprehensive analysis yet of Indian and Chinese research has said.
Chinese research output has increased a hundred-fold since 1980 but India’s has only a little more than doubled, shows the analysis published today in Current Science, a journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences.
First of all, there’s something inherently disturbing about the way that they talk about scientific/scholarly output as if it were some mass-produced widget on an assembly line. But more importantly, we wonder if whoever did this research and wrote this article really has any clue about what is behind China’s “great scientific leap” forward. Both the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the English language media has been rife with reports of academic corruption in China—plagiarism, padding the resume, the publish or perish attitude, and perhaps most seriously, the overly politicized nature of academe itself.
The Calcutta Times article talks about how many scholarly articles and citations Chinese scientists and academics are getting, but many within China seem to realize that there’s not too much quality behind all this quantity. Sending the same paper to several journals doesn’t really increase the amount of quality work being published, and is also a violation of academic ethics. The pressure to publish also means that, contrary to established academic standards, there are often more than two principal authors on certain papers, again making Chinese academics seem much more prolific than they really are.
And why is there all this pressure? Some have likened Chinese academia to Chinese politics—meaning that people seem to be more interested in jockeying for more power and money than they are in conducting the kind of research that would actually advance human knowledge. You’re expected to produce a certain number of papers each year if you want to survive and advance in this system. And once you get on that hamster wheel, there’s no stopping. It’s not unheard of for some Chinese academics to produce over 100 papers a year, a fact which no doubt makes the Indians nervous—how do you compete against a nation of scientific eggheads that can produce a paper every couple of days and maintain that rate throughout an entire year?
Prominent intellectuals like the Chinese-American mathematician S.T. Yau, have raised the alarm, but as is always the case, the outspoken critics can yammer all they want, the system doesn’t change, or at least not as fast as you’d hope.
Yet another year has gone by without a Chinese person winning the Nobel prize in anything, and like with everything else, this issue is being debated on the internet. When will the Chinese win a Nobel prize? How many years will it take?
Lu Xun, arguably China’s most famous modern writer, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927. In response he wrote that he hoped he would not get the prize, because he didn’t feel as if any Chinese person at the time was deserving of the prize. In fact, giving the prize to a “yellow-skinned” person might be a good way of stroking the Chinese ego, making them feel as if they were equal to other nations that already had Nobel laureate writers, but that the overall effect of this would be very bad.
The cartoon says, from right to left: fake results, fake research, fame/fortune. Taken from zgszrx.com.