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C&E Perspectives

An Interview with China STM Publishing Expert Nicko Goncharoff 

June 15, 2023  |  By

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China’s recent publishing sector reforms and research assessment policies have sparked significant interest and concern among international publishers and publishing service providers. In our just-released International STM Publishing in China: State of the Market Report 2023 – a joint effort by Clarke & Esposito and China expert Nicko Goncharoff of Osmanthus Consulting – we explore the various impacts of these changes, and the opportunities and challenges they present to international publishers.  

What do publishers need to be worried about, and what do they need to do to stay ahead? In this interview with Nicko, we dive in to get under the surface of this dynamic and unique market. To go deeper, explore our new report.

How would you briefly describe China’s recent publishing sector reforms and research assessment policies? 

These reforms aim to address the ethical concerns surrounding research output. They are designed to encourage more consistent, ethical behavior by authors and to reduce reliance on Clarivate’s Science Citation Index and Journal Impact Factor to assess research value. This is in part due to concerns that these metrics incentivize researchers to prioritize output volume and getting published in high-impact journals over producing accurate, high-quality research. 

China also hopes to reduce its reliance on non-domestic publishers and improve the representation of Chinese research in the global scholarly community. These reforms are part of a broader effort to build a more competitive research ecosystem in China – one that is grounded in ethical principles and supports the development of local talent and infrastructure. 

What are the biggest market challenges for international publishers stemming from these reforms and policies? 

Eventually, international publishers will see more submissions going to Chinese domestic publishing organizations. Reforms that call for journal warning lists will target some prominent international titles, and this, in turn, will cause Chinese submissions to those journals to plummet. These policies, along with China’s desire to minimize costs in any transition to open access, will likely reduce the profit margins that international publishers have historically enjoyed in China. 

And what are the biggest opportunities? 

China’s research output will continue to drive significant submissions to international publishers. While volumes and margins will likely decline somewhat, China will remain an important market for many international publishers. China’s effort to develop its domestic STM publishing sector also offers opportunities for providing publisher and author services, including platforms, training, and marketing services. International publishers with expertise in these areas can offer valuable services to help improve the quality and impact of Chinese research, building relationships and establishing themselves as trusted partners in the Chinese market. 

What actions can international publishers take to compete with research from Chinese authors that is expanding in breadth and quality? 

International publishers need to take a multipronged approach that encompasses marketing, editorial, and partnership strategies. This means working with Chinese research community stakeholders to protect or expand the researcher market and mindshare, develop an agile and responsive marketing and editorial engagement strategy, and – for some publishers – implement or expand journal publishing partnerships with domestic publishing organizations. Publishers able to adapt quickly to changing conditions and respond effectively to feedback from the Chinese research community are more likely to succeed in this dynamic environment. 

What obstacles does China face in its ambitions to rise in the global publishing marketplace? Are there areas where it might need to scale back or adjust? 

The main challenge is the fragmented and top-down nature of China’s domestic publishing market. Many Chinese STM publishers lack sufficient scale, publishing expertise, and the global connections needed to achieve their goals of developing or launching world-class journals. This situation will change, and no one should doubt China’s determination to succeed and exceed expectations – but it will require considerable effort. 

Where can international publishers offer expertise to help Chinese institutions and publishers quickly scale? 

As China’s research output continues to grow and Chinese publishers seek to improve their standing in the global scholarly community, demand is strong for training and services in publishing and editorial best practices, global author engagement, author services, and international marketing. Many Chinese publishers recognize the need to develop their capabilities in areas such as editorial management, peer review, effective strategies to engage international audiences, and enhancing the quality and impact of their publications.  

What are Chinese journal warning lists, and to what extent do international publishers need to be concerned about them? Are there ways to ensure one’s journals don’t get listed? 

One of the risks international publishers face when operating in China is the possibility of having a journal placed on a warning list by the Chinese government. These lists are said to be aimed at journals which have published works produced by unethical actors such as paper mills or which have been subjected to citation or peer review rings. In some cases, a journal might find it is on a warning list simply because it has grown too rapidly in China or has a very high proportion of authors from China.  

These lists are a significant threat to international publishers. Being placed on a warning list can result in submissions from Chinese researchers effectively drying up. In addition to the financial implications, publishers can face consequential damage to their overall brand and reputation. There are some guidelines one can follow and best practices to adopt, but there is no guaranteed way to eliminate this risk entirely. 

What impact could a national open access (OA) policy in China have on local and international publishers? And is a far-reaching OA policy likely? 

A national OA policy in China will likely result in challenging negotiations between Chinese institutions and international publishers, as the former seek to make any transition to OA cost-neutral compared with existing agreements. Since such a transition is economically unsustainable for international publishers, the two sides will need to find a solution. At the same time, China will ensure that its domestic STM sector is positioned to take advantage of any national OA policy, increasing competitive pressure on international publishers operating in that market. 

After conducting this research, what do you think is the single most important thing international publishers and publisher service providers should keep their eye on when it comes to China? 

China will remain an important market for international scholarly publishers, but it will be more challenging to operate there – and profit margins will come under pressure. To get the most out of this market one needs a solid strategy for engaging local stakeholders, understanding the policy and competitive landscape, and addressing the unique needs of Chinese authors. While adopting these approaches, international publishers may wish to diversify into other markets in order to reduce their dependence on Chinese submissions and revenues in the longer term. However, China will likely remain critical to global STM publishing growth, so publishers should make sure they are positioning themselves for long-term success in this important and rapidly evolving market.

Gain exclusive market insights and analysis to support your China strategy 

Publishers need strong data and shrewd analysis to address top priorities and challenges related to publishing in and with China. To go much deeper into the backdrop and implications of China’s STM market changes for your organization and see how you can gain a competitive edge, access the 2023 state of the market report by C&E and Nicko Goncharoff. With an Organizational License Plus, you’ll receive a range of benefits in addition to the report – including exclusive access to key market data and action items, a Q&A Zoom call with a China expert, breaking news alerts and analysis, a quarterly newsletter with market updates, and more.   

With a diligent and focused approach, publishers can navigate new challenges and capitalize on the opportunities presented by China’s evolving publishing landscape. 

Michael Clarke

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Michael is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito. His experience spans both the publishing and software industries, with a focus on developing, delivering, and marketing information products for professionals. See Full Bio

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