Cash rewards soar for research published overseas

Cash rewards to Chinese scientists whose research features in overseas journals have risen dramatically in recent years – reaching over US$160,000 for papers appearing in the most prestigious Western journals, according to a just-published analysis.

In their analysis of financial incentives offered by China’s top 100 universities, Wei Quan at Wuhan University’s School of Information Management in China, Bikun Chen at Nanjing University of Science and Technology in China, and Fei Shu at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, found that cash paid on publication is widespread at Chinese universities and may even be skewing research, according to their paper “Publish or Impoverish: An investigation of the monetary reward system of science in China (1999-2016)”.

Investigating some 168 cash-per-publication policies from 100 Chinese universities, the authors found cash rewards ranging from US$30 to US$165,000 for a single paper published in journals indexed by Web of Science. The average reward has been increasing for the past 10 years, they say.

“Since these cash-per-publication reward policies vary by institution and some policies are internal or confidential, they have never been systematically investigated except for in some case studies,” the authors note, saying their study is the first time this has been done.

The journals Science and Nature have by far the highest impact factors, and the rewards for publication are highest for these. In 2016 the average reward for publication of a single paper in these journals was US$44,000 and the highest payment was as much as US$165,000.

As some cash payments are kept secret there may even be higher amounts, say the authors who trawled universities’ records on Baidu, the Chinese search engine. Some universities even announced that the amount of cash rewarded for a Nature or Science paper was negotiable.

Increasing rewards

The average cash award for a Nature or Science paper increased 67% from US$26,212 in 2008 – a significant amount in a country where the average salary of a university professor is just US$8,600.

“The reward value for a JASIST [Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology] paper is equal to a single year’s salary for a newly-hired professor while the cash award for a Nature or Science article is up to 20 times a university professor’s average annual salary,” the authors say.

For the most part, however, cash rewards in 2016 for prestigious Western journals hovered around US$1,000-US$2,000.

Payments for publication in journals with a lower impact factor were significantly smaller. The average payment for publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was US$3,513, in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology US$2,488, and in PLOS One US$984.

The authors point out that although the Journal Impact Factor is widely recognised to be a poor metric for evaluating the quality of individual papers, it is used in almost all cash reward policies as the golden rule to assess the value of individual research.

Not all authors of a paper can claim cash rewards. In 118 out of 168 cash reward policies, universities only award cash to the first author; some universities even require that the awarded author must be both the first author and the corresponding author.

However, in an unexpected finding, China’s Tier 3 universities pay more than Tier 1 and Tier 2 universities, despite having smaller budgets. “In 2016, Tier 3 universities paid double or even triple what Tier 1 and 2 universities did for a paper published in some journals,” the authors said.

Nanjing pioneered rewards

The analysis notes that the first cash-per-publication policy was launched by the department of physics at Nanjing University around 1990. Initially, researchers received US$25 for each published paper, increasing to up to US$120 in the mid-1990s.

After it began this reward system, Nanjing University topped the list of Chinese universities publishing the most papers in journals indexed by Web of Science for seven years in a row.

Nanjing’s “research evaluation policy and cash reward policy were then copied by other universities and research institutions. Today, every university and research institution in China has established their own cash reward policies,” the authors said.

That has begun to have an impact on the conduct of some scientists, the authors report, noting that plagiarism, academic dishonesty, ghost-written papers and fake peer-review scandals are on the increase in China, as is the number of mistakes. “The number of paper corrections authored by Chinese scholars increased from two in 1996 to 1,234 in 2016, a historic high,” they say.

They report the case of one materials scientist at Heilongjiang University who published 279 papers in a single journal, Acta Crystallographica Section E, between 2004 and 2009, receiving more than half the rewards handed out by the university.

“Professor Gao’s only research focus in these five years was to find new crystal structures in his lab and always report the results of this to the same journal, because he could accomplish the goal of winning the cash bonus in a short term as contrasted with receiving fewer awards by conducting long-term research projects,” according to the authors.

China is the second-largest producer of scientific papers after the US, contributing 16.3% of scientific articles indexed by Web of Science. Articles indexed by Scopus, which includes other prestigious Western journals, were not included in the analysis and in many cases, were not included in the rewards system.