China displaces US as Top publisher of high-quality natural science studies

China tops natural-science table.

June 16, 2023
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Recently, Nature Publishing Group releases Nature Index Annual Tables 2023, in which China tops the natural science table. It highlights that Chinese scholars made the largest contribution to high-quality natural science research in 2022, surpassing the United States in the Nature Index rankings. The Annual Tables 2023 provides a full breakdown of the institutions that have helped to propel China to the top in Share last year, and also feature, for the first time, data on publications in a set of high-quality medical journals that was added to the Nature Index.

The Nature Index is an open database created in 2014, which tracks research papers published in 82 high-quality natural science journals. The index counts and ranks papers using two methods: Count and Share. This allows users to compare research output from different institutions across regions, disciplines, and industries.

According to author data from the 82 journals tracked by the Nature Index, the contribution shares for China and the United States from January to December 2022 were 19,373 and 17,610, respectively. This marks the first time China has surpassed the United States, becoming the country or region with the highest contribution rate to research articles published in the high-quality natural science journal group of the Nature Index. Notably, all of the institutions with a rising share in the Nature Index natural-science top ten are based in China, with the Chinese Academy of Science tops the list.

This shift in balance can be traced back to the global scientific community’s focus on different metrics since the mid-2010s. For example, a dataset from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2018 showed that China published the most papers. Over the past five years, the focus has been on when China might surpass the United States in quality-oriented metrics, such as assessments of citation counts.

In a 2022 report, Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy used a scoring method based on the percentage of authors from specific countries in papers to determine contributions to highly-cited research. The report found that, between 2018 and 2020, Chinese research had a higher proportion in the most frequently cited papers than American research.

Although the Nature Index does not evaluate citations, it tracks journals selected by independent groups of active researchers, representing a consensus of the top echelon in the field of natural sciences.

Caroline Wagner, a science and policy researcher at Ohio State University, points out that China has already surpassed the United States in terms of highly-cited papers. She believes that China’s performance exceeds expectations when measured by simple bibliometrics such as productivity and citation rates.

However, Wagner adds that China still lags “significantly behind” other countries in the ability to “absorb and apply knowledge,” and its research collaboration with some major countries, such as the United States, has decreased.

Despite these achievements, challenges persist. To catch up with the United States in terms of paper count alone, as indicated by the Nature Index, China still has a way to go. During the same period from January to December 2022, the United States published nearly 25,200 articles, while China published just over 23,500.

Moreover, attention must be paid to the researchers themselves. The Chinese research community faces the issue of “内卷 (involution),” which leads to a large number of researchers pursuing “短平快 (quick and easy)” research—papers that are numerous but less challenging. Additionally, there is a prominent tendency to cluster around hot research topics. However, scientific breakthroughs often don’t require a “人海战术 (sea of people)” strategy but rather a focused and strong team.

Over the past twenty years, as the number of Chinese international publications has increased, so too have cases of academic misconduct (plagiarism, academic dishonesty, ghostwriting, falsification of peer reviews, etc.). The scale of academic misconduct has evolved from individual cases to “paper mills.” Consequently, the number of retracted papers from China has continually increased over the past two decades, and China now leads the world in the number of retracted papers.

To further strengthen its research capabilities, China must deepen its commitment to a wider range of institutions, scientists, and fields to achieve greater self-reliance. Denis Simon, a researcher in Chinese science and innovation, asserts that this is the true focus of the government.

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