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The structure and comparative advantages of China’s scientific research: quantitative and qualitative perspectives

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In recent decades China has witnessed an impressive improvement in science and its scientific output has become the second largest in the world. From both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, this paper aims to explore China’s comparative advantages in different academic disciplines. This paper employs two datasets: publications in all journals and publications in the top 5 % journals by discipline. With the former database we investigate the comparative advantages of each academic discipline in terms of absolute output volume, and with the latter database we evaluate the scientific output published in prestigious resources. Different from the criticism stated in previous literature, this paper finds that the quality of China’s research (represented by papers published in high-impact journals) is promising. Since 2006 the growth of scientific publications in China has been driven by papers published in English-language journals. The increasing visibility of Chinese science seems to be paving the way for its wider recognition and higher citation rates.

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  1. These primary goals are from the official guideline of the “Medium- and Long-Term Programme for Science and Technology Development” (in Chinese). The whole document is available on the website of MSTC (Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China)

  2. The growth rate is calculated based on the R&D expenditure data from China Statistical Yearbooks on S&T, various issues.

  3. See more details at

  4. Data were collected from Scopus-SciVerse Elsevier. Detailed information on data is provided in “Data and methodology” section.

  5. Data are collected from Scopus-SciVerse Elsevier. Detailed information on data is provided in “Data and methodology” section.

  6. It should be noted that citation impact and journal impact factor are two related indicators. Journal impact factor is one step further and calculated based on citation counts.

  7. The h-index indicates that the first h publications of a scientist/researcher received at least h citations.

  8. SJR is regarded as an extension of JIR. Therefore, in the remainder of the paper, impact factor also refers to SJR.

  9. The more citation accounts can be manipulated the less accurate they are to reflect the research quality. Some example tips to increase citation counts can be seen at

  10. As of May 1997.

  11. See more at

  12. For instance, Conroy et al. (1995) focus on a core set of eight “Blue Ribbon” journals to evaluate the performance of Economic Departments while Nature Publish Group (NPG) selects 68 journals to form a high-quality science dataset.

  13. The impact factor values for journals in different disciplines were downloaded from Scopus “Journal Metrics” website (excel file). The journal dataset this analysis employed is the 2013 version.

  14. In order to keep the scientific output comparable in different years, we select only the high-impact journals that have existed through the whole 2000–2012 period.

  15. This is calculated by the worldwide total minus China.

  16. See footnote 15.

  17. Data are collected from Scopus-SciVerse Elsevier (as of May 1997).

  18. EU27 includes Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom.

  19. Examples are Business & management, Decision sciences, Economics, Arts & humanities, Veterinary, Nursing, Psychology, Healthy and Dentistry.

  20. We choose 2005 and 2013 as the two comparable years in the RCA figures. As will be explained in a later section, 2005 is the changing point after which the language structure of China’s publications has greatly changed. Therefore, for the RCA quality index we would like to take 2005 as a reference year. In order to be consistent, we use 2005 for RCA quantity index as well. Data and figures for other years are available upon request.

  21. This is based on the data collected from Scopus—SciVerse Elsevier (as of May 1997).


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The author of this study is grateful to the valuable comments from Richard Deiss (policy officer in DG Research and Innovation), members of the consortium and the anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Lili Wang.

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This paper is a follow-up to an earlier research “Science Technology and Innovation Performance of China”, which was funded by the European Commission and implemented by the consortium of Sociedade Portuguesa de Inovação (SPI), The United Nations University—Maastricht Economic and Social Research and Training Centre on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT), and the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT).



See Table 1.

Table 1 Numbers of journals by field from Scopus

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Wang, L. The structure and comparative advantages of China’s scientific research: quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Scientometrics 106, 435–452 (2016).

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  • Revealed comparative advantage
  • Publications
  • Scientific output
  • Publication quality
  • High-impact journals

JEL Classification

  • O31
  • O32
  • O33
  • O57