Selling Sciences: Challenges for Scientific Journals in China

Gilles Demaneuf
9 min readApr 27, 2022

A case with Springer Nature and Elsevier
A short study initiated from biased publications on SARS-CoV-2 origins
By Rodolphe de Maistre and Gilles Demaneuf, DRASTIC collective

1. A strange editors’ note

Springer Nature Editors’ note, March 2020:
We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.

This note is put on top of some articles dealing with virus experiments or biosafety, such as the article above from the 9th Nov. 2015.

This note is carefully designed: it has two main propositions: “no evidence the virus is engineered”, and “scientists believe an animal is the most likely source of the virus”. (Virus being SARS-COV-2 causing COVID-19 disease.)

Both propositions are true, but they are both misleading in their own way. The first proposition may lead people to conclude that the proposition the virus is engineered is necessarily false. To this implied sophism “ad ignoratum”, is added a sophism “non sequitur”: if the second proposition that the origin is an animal is true, it does not mean such animal in the wild is the proximate origin. The proximate origin could be an infection during a sampling of bats in a cave, an infection in a lab (LAI), or a lab leak through wastes or humanized mice escaping — all scenarios (except the first one) being also applicable whether the virus is engineered or not.

Why did Springer Nature publish this biased editors’ note?
If Springer Nature’s intent was to defend scientists’ opinions and avoid wrong hasty conclusions by the public, they would have drafted the note in a neutral way: “This article does not offer any case for a non-natural origin of the novel coronavirus causing COVD-19. The origin of the new coronavirus is still under investigation and it is yet unknown whether it is fully natural or not”.

The other explanation is that Springer Nature, on the SARS-COV-2 origin, followed the narrative of influential scientists such as the ones who orchestrated the Lancet (Elsevier) letter on the conspiracy theory in order to protect some fellow scientists in China.

2. Attractions of the Chinese market

The editor is Nature publishing group who belonged to Holtzbrinck Publishing Group’s Macmillan Science and Education. In May 2015 Springer Science+Business Media and Macmillan Science and Education merged to form Springer Nature. Springer Nature posted revenues of €1.72 billion in 2019, and had around €3 billions debts. Two IPOs were planned to finance the debt, the first time in 2018, then again in 2020, but they were cancelled.

Nature: “China splashes millions on hundreds of home-grown journals”:
11th Dec 2019 NATURE: US$29-million investment aims to boost the country’s status as an international scientific powerhouse.

Elsevier: “China is stepping up the funding and production of research

Aware of China potential in scientific publications, both publishing groups entered and developed an important business in China.

3. What are China aims?

Recent years saw China rise swiftly to become second in the world for research papers published in international journals, behind the United States. Ministries of education and science and technology, with the ministry of finance for the funding, have been pushing for international publications; International publications were also part of universities ranking, and scientists promotions and emulation.

However, in 2018, Xi Jingping recalibrated that approach when he said that China should have its own academic standards and norms, not bound by international norms, and new guidelines have been recently set. The new guidelines were released early 2020 by the two ministries. They are “aimed at reducing “excessive reliance” on Science Citation Index (SCI) papers for academic promotions, job offers and allocation of research funding.”

“The aim is to establish a new evaluation system of works which are more relevant [to China’s needs] and specially research that could be used to solve Chinese problems and ask researchers in China to find questions related to the Chinese context.”

“Scientists will still be encouraged to publish work in leading international journals — such as Nature, Science and Cell — but research that appears in less influential journals in the SCI index will no longer attract government funding, according to the guidelines.”

At the same time, CNKI, the Chinese publisher, with 1300 top rated journals and comprehensive database for academic thesis, is enjoying a marked profitable growth.

4. Financial footprints

We have checked which scientific Open Access journals were subsidized by Chinese institutions in 2020 for:

  1. Springer Nature
  2. Elsevier (of the Lancet), and its Chinese JV KeAi.

As Open Access, these journals are free to read. Usually, the author pays the publishing charges, or, finds funds (their university for instance) to pay the publisher. In this case of Open Access journals that are subsidized, the fees are paid directly to the publisher by an institution (association, University, sometimes a military academy) related to the editorial board and who has an agreement with the publisher (Springer, Elsevier..), and the author has nothing to pay. Springer Nature calls this scheme “Sponsorship” and the institution who pays the publishing charge is the Sponsor, whereas Elsevier calls it “Subsidized journal”.

We have listed (in Annex) the sponsored / subsidized Open Access journals only. We have not listed the hybrid and paid journals; for instance, the journal Virologica Sinica of Dr Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is published by Springer. It is a hybrid journal, and as such it is not in our list. Nature and The Lancet are also hybrid journals not in our list.

This sponsorship scheme is not extensively used if we compare the number of sponsors with the thousands of Open access Journals. However, it is significant because it gives a good indication as to: how China is willing to access the international exposure by securing recurrent publications in international scientific journals.

The following tables show the number of sponsored / subsidized Open Access journals per Country.

China is the country who most uses this form of sponsorship.

The value of 49 sponsorship agreements between Springer Nature and Chinese institutions can be estimated between 10 and 20 millions USD yearly revenues for Springer Nature. The estimate is based on the study “Springer Open pricing trends 2018–2019” by Heather Morrison and SPARC Landscape Analysis

Understanding the publishing business: REPORT MAR 29, 2019 SPARC Landscape Analysis

Springer Nature and Elsevier strategy was to enter the promising Chinese market as much as fostering better international cooperation with Chinese scientists for the benefit of science. At the same time, China wanted international recognition. Thus there was a good match and many contractual agreements (sponsor agreements, JVs) were reached that enabled:

  • secured international exposure to Chinese publications
  • access to part of the Chinese market and benefit of associated revenues to international publishers

However, as international publishers have secured significant revenues with Chinese scientific publications, could international publishers be faced with the threat of losing market shares in China, acquired with great effort, if they make their clients unhappy?
This is an existential argument especially if one has 3 billions euro debts. And there are many ways to make China unhappy with scientific publications. Let alone publishing lab leak hypotheses for the SARS COV-2, any studies on Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, South China sea, or historical studies that do not respect the Chinese communist party ideology and view of history, may provoke reactions from China.

It could be similar to what happened to international airlines. They had to remove Taiwan from their destinations otherwise they would have been sanctioned by China. It is not COI, but market pressure as they don’t want to lose market share which became significant with China. But when it deals with international publications, this is more problematic as the publications have an influence with international readers in the world. This is a kind of soft power global effect.

The recent “shift away from international publications” guidelines, the reduction of funding for international publications, and high development of Chinese own publications platforms, represent another market pressure for the international publishers who want to stay and keep their Chinese market. China has fewer demands for international publications. Except for prominent journals such as Nature, international journals risk to be left with more competition in China against Chinese players such as CNKI.

5. Agreements with Chinese universities

All Chinese universities have dual governance: one from the central government and one from the communist party; it is noticed a recent intensification grip on politics and ideology (China’s higher education system — 70 years of evolution).

Publishers, by signing agreements with Chinese universities, have to be aware of Chinese universities’ governance.

The future is not particularly bright for independent Chinese scientific publications as there is an intensified grip on politics and ideology. To continue to broaden Chinese publications while keeping their integrity & quality, the international publishing companies should work on their ethical & integrity chart and peer reviews system, and set clear positions to their Chinese clients (or, let CNKI publish…). Otherwise, there is a danger to have Chinese politics and ideologies biased the publications and expand the bias to the world, even indirectly and not intentionally.

We already witness these biases as follows:

6. Way forward

It is China’s well understood interest to get recognition from the international scientific world, and it is in the interest of the rest of the world to share scientific research. However international journals should not feel intimidated in deciding what they should or should not publish. Political or financial pressure should never be part of the scientific publication exercise.

All international journals have to set and respect ethics and compliance rules, and insist on impartiality and absence of censorship. They have to be aware of the strong dependence of Chinese institutions such as universities on China’s government and politics. Based on that clear-eyed knowledge, journals should strive to preserve their independence (including financial independence) while embracing China’s contribution to sciences.

Practically, this would have to be fostered via some global agreement between publishing houses and journals to avoid a prisoner’s dilemma situation. We could for instance imagine a code of behavior and independence that all international journals would commit to, with an independent ombudsman that could investigate any reported breach, financed by the publishing houses themselves.

Annexes:

We have checked only open access journals that are subsidized by China. If we want to check the market share of Chinese journals for Springer Nature and Elsevier, we should check not only open access journals but also hybrid and fully paid ones.
Another worthwhile exercise would be to check the constitution of the editorial boards of these journals.

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Gilles Demaneuf

Opinions, analyses and views expressed are purely mine and should not in any way be characterised as representing any institution.