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There's gold in them thar science mines!

J. Harry Caufield

Today, during a lecture by NIH principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak, I learned something rather odd about how scientific publishing is rewarded in China. Dr. Tabak cited this 2011 article in the context of data reproducibility; it shows how researchers are explicitly paid by their host institutions to publish their results.  One first-author paper in Nature or Science could yield up to 200,000 RMB (about US $32,560), at least at Zhejiang University. For context, a Chinese researcher with a stellar, international reputation might make that much in a year at a Chinese university.* Authors are frequently rewarded smaller amounts depending on whether they're first author (other authors get less, though I wonder what the senior author receives) and the journal's impact factor.

There are at least two obvious issues here. The first is that the Chinese system essentially formalizes how scientific careers actually work. A first-author Science paper may not net a cash prize in most countries but it'll turn nearly any CV into solid gold. Most researchers don't get paid by the publication but they won't get paid if they never publish.** More worrying are the potential results of either system (that is, either explicit or implicit payment-per-publication). When jobs depend on whether the science works, the science is going to work, one way or another. That tends to be a problem when someone finally discovers that the science never worked to begin with.

*Source: a comment on a blog post about the 2011 article in question. See also.

**Paying scientists for individual papers mostly sounds like freelance writing. It's an interesting counterpoint to my rant about postdocs last week. Postdocs aren't really employees yet they're expected to perform as if they were for brief yet intense periods of time. Perhaps scientists are closer to, say, freelance bloggers than we may think.