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China overtakes the US in terms of research quality, finds study

22 Mar 2022 Laura Hiscott
Asian scientist use microscope
Taking the lead While China has already overtaken the US in terms of the quantity of scientific research, a new study suggests it has caught up in terms of quality too. (Courtesy: iStock/RyanKing999)

The quality of China’s scientific research output exceeded that of the US in 2019. That is according to a new analysis by researchers in the US, which also found that China had already overtaken the European Union in terms of research quality by 2015.  

China’s total research output has grown rapidly in recent years, but there has been a widespread belief that the “quality” – judged by the number of citations papers receive – is not as high as other countries. A common measure of a nation’s research quality is the percentage of its papers appearing in the top 1% of the most-cited papers globally. Since citation practices vary widely across disciplines, researchers typically weight the citation data of papers according to their fields, before comparing countries’ scientific output. When comparing field-weighted citation data, the US has a higher percentage of research in the top 1% worldwide than China does. 

Although this weighting practice makes sense when comparing papers from different fields, Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University argues that it is not appropriate when comparing the overall research outputs of different countries. Together with Lin Zhang of Wuhan University and Loet Leydesdorff of the University of Amsterdam, Wagner analysed citation data contained in the database Web of Science and used the unweighted data to quantify different countries’ research quality.

They found that 1.67% of papers with Chinese authors were in the top 1% most-cited articles in 2019 compared with 1.62% of papers with US authors.

Wagner believes that China’s rapidly rising scientific impact is due to its large-scale investments in research and development, scientific infrastructure and the mobility of students and scholars. She also points out that government policy has targeted leading areas of research.

“We need to think about scientific capability, not as a race, but as a frontier of knowledge,” Wagner told Physics World. “China is now operating at the frontier, along with several other nations, including the US and a number of European nations, Japan and South Korea.” Wagner is now investigating how the US can exploit new knowledge “no matter where it is developed”. 

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