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China strives to reach 'Nature'
By Jia Hepeng (China Business Weekly)
Updated: 2004-09-27 15:57

Reforms are continuing in China's publishing sector, especially regarding scientific journals, but insiders suggest the nation is a long way from having its own established "Nature" and "Science" magazines.

The Ministry of Science and Technology recently announced it will fund the publication of several scientific journals, with the aim of transforming them into world-renowned periodicals.

Sun Zhengqi, the official responsible for science-related publications, said the ministry hopes the journals will be highly regarded for the quality of their content.

"The decision was made because China has few internationally recognized journals. That does not tally with our status as a big country and a strong developing nation, in terms of science and technology development," said Sun.

English-language academic journals and some science popularization publications will be first in line for the funding, Sun said.

He would not say how many journals will receive funding, or how much money they will receive.

"We are inviting publishing experts to draft a detailed plan, and the funding will be dispersed in a step-by-step process," Sun said.

A comprehensive evaluation panel will decide which journals will receive funding.

China had 4,497 scientific journals last year. That accounted for 49.5 per cent of the periodicals published in the country.

Some 400 million copies of those journals were printed in China last year, which accounted for 13.8 per cent of all copies of journals published in the nation.

China has seemingly countless scientific journals, but many are unpopular and of poor quality, and it can take up to a year for submissions to be published, said Zhu Yemei, editor of Beijing-based Journal of Electronics.

Lack of funding, poor circulation and a shortfall of ad revenues hamper the publication of many of the journals and popular Chinese science magazines.

"As far as I know, no scientific journal is financially independent," Tang Dejiang, editor-in-chief of Beijing-based popular scientific magazine Newton Science World, told China Business Weekly.

Lacks of funding and competition prevent many scientific journals from explaining the latest domestic scientific developments within their disciplines, said Zhang Yutai, vice-president of the China Association of Science and Technology.

He made the comments earlier this month, during the first China Forum for Science Publication. The event was held in Beijing.

As a result, many Chinese scientists now publish their research findings overseas. UK-based science journal "Nature" reported recently that, between 1981 and last year, the number of Chinese scientific papers published in international scientific journals increased 20 times.

Said Sun:"The key factor resulting in the poor situation ... is not lack of funding, but lack of competitiveness. The poor journals cannot be washed out of the market, and they continue snatching the limited resources."

In China, most scientific journals are published and partially funded by science institutes and governments' scientific administration departments.

The publication of newspapers and/or magazines must be approved by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) and private entities are prohibited from owning and/or operating journals and/or newspapers.

"Besides funding some key journals, we hope to promote competition and reorganization in the field. But the initiative is not under our jurisdiction, and it must be decided by the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China and GAPP," Sun said.

Liu Binjie, vice-director of GAPP, has echoed Sun's concerns, on other occasions.

In early August, during an inspection tour of China's Science Publishing Group, Liu stressed reforms in the science publication sector should be greatly advanced.

But he said there was no established reform model, and he suggested publishers should grasp their own modes of reform.

Even if the reform of scientific journals can be boldly pushed to introduce more competition, it will not necessarily mean China will have a booming science publication sector, experts suggest.

Unlike literature and popular entertainment magazines, the development of scientific journals is limited by the scope of readership, people's lack of scientific knowledge and their low desire to inquire into particular science questions, Tang said.

The situation does not only curb the development of academic science journals, but also the popularization of science magazines, Tang added.

The "China National Geography," a popular magazine affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is widely considered to be a successful scientific journal.

But Tang said the magazine has good sales and ad revenues because it is renowned for specializing in travel and local history.

"What is lacking is the emergence of some truly scientific and highly successful magazines, which will allow their successes to shift the attention of the public to our scientific publications," Tang said.

But such success requires huge funding from the government, or from scientific societies, he added.

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