Chinese Information Market

Issues in Scientific Communication and the Potential for Information Marketing in China

by Jian Qin

Entering the 1990s, communication in the scientific community has become more complex than ever before. Scientists are armed with highly advanced information technologies and are able to cumulate the knowledge reservoir at a faster pace. But unfortunately, due to language, economic and technological barriers, communication is unbalanced between scientists in China and other parts of the world. Such an unbalance can have many reasons, but from the information communication perspective, it can be seen in two ways.

The first is to view scientific communication as a process that scientists directly participate in and are able to control. This type of communication takes the forms of research collaboration, citations in research papers, conference attendance and so on. If one uses these as variables to measure scientific communication, they can be referred to as endogenous measures, each of which can be divided further into subcategories. Research collaboration by type, for example, can be divided into intro-departmental, inter-departmental, inter-institutional and international collaborations. One can easily obtain data through bibliographic information. These variables are useful for people to know how many researchers and organizations have been involved in a research activity, so that one can understand better the scientific communication across departments, institutions, regions and countries.

Another way to see scientific communication is from the information transfer cycle, in which scientists as producers and users participate indirectly in collecting, storing, organizing and delivering the information and have less control over the process. Such a process involves the flow of research data and published output. The measures for this type of communication can be referred to as exogenous variables. The flow of research data (such as observatory data, field experimental data, scientific expedition data, etc.), for example, largely depends on the communications technology available. The flow of publications is another example. It involves the whole information industry that is responsible for publishing, collecting, storing, representing, delivering and providing access to the publications. Both flows are almost beyond the control of scientists.

Though research collaboration in China has increased rapidly since the 1980s, the scale is still very limited both at national and international levels. Based on the data from the journal Science in China (Series A & B) from 1990-1993, one finds that non-collaboration and intro-departmental collaboration occupy the two largest proportions: 26% and 45%, respectively. The proportions diminish to much smaller numbers as the scope of collaboration increases to inter-departmental in an institution, inter-institutional in a country and international levels. To be precise, inter-departmental collaboration is about 4%,inter-institutional 16% and international 7%. Comparing a sample from the Science Citation Index (SCI) (SCI data used here is a sample that the author selected through computer-generated random numbers for her dissertation), non-collaboration is only 14%, half less than that in Science in China; intro-departmental collaboration 37%; inter-departmental 6%, inter-institutional 30% and international 13%, almost double that in Science in China.

Though the collaboration in Science in China was less developed in terms of its scope, Chinese scientists extensively used the literature in foreign languages. In the same set of data from Science in China, research papers in astronomy, chemistry, life sciences, mathematics and physics had percentages in the teens of citations to Chinese literature, and those in Earth sciences and technology had 37.55% and 21.72%, respectively. Most of the citations were to English literature, ranging from 60-85% for all disciplines. Earth sciences are a particular case in which the use of Chinese literature was the highest. This is probably because research in this field has largely focused on the geological, geophysical or oceanographic phenomena in China. Most of the observational and surveying data are recorded and published in Chinese.

Citation age is another indicator for scientific communication. It reflects the currency of the information used by scientists. In analyzing the distribution of the relative and cumulative frequencies of citation age, the data from Science in China show that only about 6% of the information used is current (i.e., citation age equal to one year), 34% has two- to five-year time lags and about 25% had six- to ten-year timelags. These three groups comprise approximately 65% of the total.

Conferences are a good way to network people, initiate collaborative research projects and keep abreast of new developments. Chinese scientists have been very active in this form of communication. According to statistics, there were 14,405 national conferences in science and technology held in China in 1990, a total of 1,118,752 people attended and 381,573 papers were presented (Chinese Statistical Yearbook on Science and Technology 1991, edited by State Statistical Bureau, State Science and Technology Commission in Beijing). That is to say, nearly 40 national conferences were held each day in China and each conference had an average of 77 participants. In addition, more than one international conference was held each day with an average of 52 papers presented by Chinese scientists per conference. International conferences held outside China had fewer participants from the Chinese scientist community.

Although Chinese scientists have been very active in communicating with their colleagues in the world, most of their work is still unknown by the outside world. In 1990, the Chinese scientist community published 88,723 papers in Chinese scientific journals. There were only 6055 covered by Science Citation Index, counting for 6.83% of the 88,723. The coverage in the other two sources was even smaller: 2840 (3.2%) by Engineering Index and 2369 (2.67%) by Index to Scientific and Technology Proceedings.

The published output within the country increased dramatically in the past decade, but the process of making it available to scientists was slow. In spite of information industry efforts to develop Chinese bibliographical information databases, many bibliographic searches for Chinese scientific documents have to be done manually. The research and academic libraries have been experimenting with various kinds of systems for processing primary information and providing better secondary information products and services. But until the early 1990s, only a few of them were formally in use.

The above data represent partly the status of scientific communication in China. The characteristics of the communication can be summarized as follows:

The status of scientific communication in China leaves a serious question for us to answer: What can the information industry do to improve communication between scientists in China and other parts of the world? As the economy becomes more globalized and interdependence more important, the cost of ignoring such an interrelationship becomes too high. The task for the information industry is to create an environment for scientists to collaborate more extensively and to communicate more conveniently. There are at least three areas that have great demand currently:
1) Collaboratories:
Collaboratories are systems that allow scientists to manipulate data, operate remote instruments and collaborate with their colleagues in different locations. The idea was developed by a group of scientists from computer science and other disciplines to promote interdisciplinary research collaboration. Although Chinese scientists are active in communicating within and outside the country, the level and scope are limited largely by geographical, technological and language barriers. The collaboratories existing in North America provide very good examples for developing such systems in China.
2) Information exchange:
The idiosyncrasy of the Chinese language has made it very difficult for Chinese scientists to communicate with people speaking other languages. Though it is true that Chinese scientists receive a great deal of information from scientists using other languages, such communication mainly remains at the level of receiving rather than disseminating. In other words, the information exchange between scientists in China and other parts of the world is unbalanced. To strengthen the disseminating role of Chinese scientists, Chinese-English bilingual databases and software for information retrieval will be extremely important, which in turn shows an opportunity for the information industry to develop new products in serving this demand.
3) Electronic publishing:
This is a new area that has a great potential for information marketing and research. Electronic publishing, from the narrowest sense, involves using SGML tagging documents for publishing purposes. There is a possibility that by using such tagging methods and appropriate software we can improve the effectiveness of indexing Chinese scientific publications. From a broader perspective, electronic publishing also includes CD-ROM products, word processing, spreadsheet applications, to name only a few. The information industry in China has just started entering the electronic publishing market. There is a potential need for importing and marketing mature technology in electronic publishing from developed countries.

Jian Qin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.