Does international publishing still matter for social scientists?

In recent years we have witnessed a dramatic change in China’s ideology relating to political and social development amid rising geopolitical tensions with the West, in particular with the United States, which inevitably impacts upon scholarly research and knowledge production in social sciences in the country.

Specifically, China is now determined to mould an alternative model of modernisation in place of one that has been viewed as Western-centric. China’s social sciences are thus now entrusted to tell the Chinese story of progress towards modernisation. Furthermore, such storytelling must be versed in Marxist theories and guided by Marxist methodology.

The first two decades in the 21st century witnessed an outbreak of submissions to and publications in international journals by Chinese authors. In light of recent developments, however, one wonders to what extent international or English-language publishing still matters to China’s social sciences scholars and whether the trend to publish in international publications will continue or will take a different turn.

Changes in academic appraisal

Around 2018, China nearly underwent a complete U-turn in its academic appraisal exercises, shifting from overtly incentivising international publishing (with handsome cash and-or professional rewards) to downplaying the excessive emphasis and weight placed on journal articles, professional titles, academic credentials, awards and projects.

One of the major reasons behind this twist was that the growing output of scholarly papers did not really translate into innovation power for the country.

Scepticism grew about the overemphasis on publishing research, including in international publications. The latter used to be perceived as being of high quality and impact, but turned out to be increasingly variable in terms of quality – and in some cases, that quality has been deteriorating.

They are also very costly. This is because a growing number of international journals now see publishing papers from China as a business opportunity and thus target Chinese authors for revenue without exercising careful quality control.

Under the new appraisal scheme, papers are required to stress their relevance to China and address issues rooted in the Chinese context. In this way, these changing academic appraisal practices impact upon social sciences research and publishing even more than other disciplines.

Arguably, research questions and subjects in social sciences tend to be locally contextualised, and thus local relevance and adaptation are a salient trait. As such, China’s social sciences researchers are now required to treat domestic and international journals on an equal basis and are encouraged to publish in domestic journals, which is easier and more convenient for local adoption and application.

Furthermore, the quantification aspects of publications are now downplayed, for example, the number of SSCI-indexed papers, citations and journal impact factors. Rather, social science scholars are now required to submit their papers for appraisal. At least one-third of such papers have to be published in domestic journals, while there is no equivalent requirement for internationally published papers.

In addition, social sciences scholars are now allowed to submit theoretically oriented articles published in major central and-or local media outlets for the appraisal exercise, as well as policy advisory reports. Should an advisory report be adopted by the government sector or affirmed by a political leader, it might carry more weight than an academic paper of any kind.

Furthermore, now that there are no incentives and supportive services, such as English translation, revision and editing, which used to be provided and covered by some institutions, China’s social sciences scholars may be less inclined toward international publishing. This is because such publications normally involve more time and effort, and are not given any extra weight in their academic appraisal and professional development anymore.

Stress on ideological correctness

Apart from local relevance and contextual fit, ideological correctness is also stressed in Chinese universities, especially in the field of social sciences research and publications.

It is reported that an ‘Ideology and Politics Index’ is being built for higher education institutions, particularly for the key national universities. This means, first and foremost, the requirement to use Marxism as the theoretical guide and methodological approach in all social sciences research.

China’s leader Xi Jinping explicitly stated in 2016 that Marxism must be placed in the guiding position – that is, a Marxist stance, perspective and method must penetrate the whole spectrum and entire process of social sciences inquiries.

He even quoted Confucius to stress Marxism as the exclusive doctrine: “The Way does not like complexity. Complexity quickly becomes too much. Too much leads to agitation, agitation leads to worry, and worry never solved anything.” It is expected that more and more social sciences scholars will align their research with Marxist doctrine.

Social sciences are now required to interpret Chinese practice and experience, and theorise a Chinese model of modernisation – all in a positive and affirmative manner. Such a stress on ideological correctness could raise concerns over the acceptance of Chinese papers in Western academia, where critical thinking traditionally dominates social sciences inquiry.

To publish or not to publish

In sum, international publishing increasingly appears to be becoming a burden for social sciences scholars in China, who now need to work on such publications without the once available systemic support and incentives.

Without doubt, those who are committed to international exchange and cooperation will continue ploughing in international fields – typically those returnees wishing to retain their international networks and those teaching at China’s top-tier universities where tenure and promotion processes tend to involve international reviewers.

Others (who might grow significantly in number), on the other hand, may choose to give up in the face of such challenges. In the meantime, social sciences are also called on to communicate and deliver a Chinese voice, story and ideas to the international arena, which appears to be a somewhat paradoxical task.

Qiang Zha is associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Canada. E-mail: This is an edited version of an article first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.