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I am an associate editor for some international scientific journals. Unsurprisingly, I receive a number of submissions from Chinese scholars (working in China), which go through the standard peer review process and publication. However, when I ask Chinese researchers, working in China, to perform reviews they either never reply or turn down any invitation based on not being able to access files or external systems. This is not the case with Chinese scholars working in other countries.

This may well be just my own unlucky personal experience, but it seems to be a consistent phenomenon throughout several years already.

Are there any ethical implications of this? This is, publishing but never refereeing? Or is it that I have been unlucky for several years?

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    @astronat So, in principle all authors could just try to publish and turn down all review requests with no ethical implications? – Wonder Mar 24 at 10:42
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    Is your question specific to Chinese academicians? If your question is, in essence, "what are the ethical concerns of publishing without contributing back by refereeing?" then why mention any individual country or countries. (please understand, I am not a Chinese fanboy, but I am also not willing to single them out unnecessarily.) – CGCampbell Mar 24 at 10:58
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    @CGCampbell My question indeed concerns only Chinese nationals, which are the only ones with this kind of issue at a national level. There are of course researchers that do the same at an individual level, but in this case it seems to be a national phenomenon. – Wonder Mar 24 at 11:00
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    I suggest that you ask a few of your Chinese reviewers living outside China but with knowledge of academia there to give you some perspective on this. Given the comment of @scaaahu and others, you might need to do this rather privately. – Buffy Mar 24 at 12:33
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    @Buffy What is wrong with asking here instead? We have a few users with knowledge of Chinese academia here. – Federico Poloni Mar 24 at 17:40
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Your experience does not match mine - Chinese researchers accept reviewer invitations just like everyone else.

Statistics also indicate that Chinese researchers do perform peer review. As a group, they submit more articles than they review for (along with Indian & Iranian researchers) but they also perform more peer review than any other country's researchers except the US (albeit not on a per capita basis).

See source.

enter image description here

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    Is there a difference depending on field, I wonder? Though if yours is physics, I'd think the Chinese government would be rather sensitive - at least in some sub fields. Guessing. – Buffy Mar 24 at 13:18
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    I see, it may well be an area-specific phenomenon. At least in Maths-oriented areas, those numbers do not match my experience. – Wonder Mar 24 at 13:21
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    @wonder statistics statistically never match individual experience. – DonQuiKong Mar 25 at 6:43
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    @Buffy I can't comment on differences between fields (I only saw reviews in condensed matter). Still, I'd be surprised if the Chinese government is intervening to that degree - after all, doing peer review is not the same as doing classified research. Perhaps an editor who has handled mathematics journals can comment. – Allure Mar 25 at 6:48
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    What the data do not say: they review fewer papers because they are asked by editors less frequently, or because they agree to review less frequently? – Federico Poloni Mar 25 at 19:41
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Internet in China is highly regulated and many usual Web sites are blocked there, say, youtube. It could be that the site of your journal is indeed not accessible there.

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    To the OP, check Baidu, the equivalent to Google in China. If you can find your journal on that site, chances are your journal is accessible there. Otherwise, your journal is not allowed by CCP. BTW, +1 for this answer, I agree. – scaaahu Mar 24 at 12:30
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    One more thing to consider, a reviewer does not need to only access the journal's site. They also need to access the journal's management site, which is often a 3rd party site (e.g., mc.manuscriptcentral.com), which would be a file sharing site. – Richard Erickson Mar 24 at 12:48
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    @RichardErickson But that is not only a problem for reviewing, but also for submitting files. In many cases its the same system but different pages / roles for authors, editors, and reviewers. So I don't buy the argument of this answer. – usr1234567 Mar 24 at 20:23
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    @usr1234567: You do not need to buy anything. But if google and arXiv.org are blocked then how do you write a referee report? In several journals where I was an editor, you did not have to upload a paper, you send a file to the editor. Uploading files of papers is a relatively new feature. – user135405 Mar 24 at 20:52
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    I must also say that some people in China are very active referees and wrote quite good referee reports for me (as an editor) in spite of obvious difficulties they face. Knowing about the difficulties, I try not to to exploit them too much. – user135405 Mar 25 at 5:31
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I'll begin by quoting dodd's answer:

"Internet in China is highly regulated and many usual Web sites are blocked there, say, youtube"

and expand it by saying that even the sites that are not "blocked" (blocked sites include Google, Facebook, Twitter and their subsidiaries like Youtube, Gmail, Instagram, etc.) cam still be extremely slow even at the four star hotel in which I stayed for 1 month while visiting scientists there. In July 2020 I asked a Chinese professor at Qingdao Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (QiTCS) in Shandong University to answer a question on Stack Exchange and he asked me to copy and paste his answer into Stack Exchange myself, because:

"It seems that I always met problem when trying to reply the post in the website"

which at first I didn't believe, because Stack Exchange is not blocked in China. But I asked professors at a completely different university to answer something on Stack Exchange and when the same thing happened, I asked my trusted Chinese academic colleague who told me:

"I chatted with Qu and he told me that he cannot visit Stack Exchange. You visited here before so you know why :-(

Perhaps of the two of them Ma is more familiar with Internet stuff (He works for the HPC centre of CAS), he will give it a try later.

Qu is not here and will be back in several days so we can meet in person and talk about that."

I asked him:

"Is stack exchange blocked? I knew google and facebook are, but I thought stack exchange would be ok"

He replied:

"I think it is because that stack exchange is depend on some service of google or some other CDN blocked, which made the webpage cannot be loaded properly, or at least extremely slow. I checked and found SE is not blocked. However the internet connection is affected by too many reasons. From my own experience, when I am at home, visiting foreign website are all too slow to visit, even they are not blocked, although Chinese websites are as fast as usual."

So it's not just "blocked" sites like Google, but almost any website can be very hard or inconvenient to access.

Finally, let me comment on a completely different aspect of your question which has less to do with the specific components about Chinese nationals:

"Are there any ethical implications of this? This is, publishing but never refereeing?"

Journals do not pay referees and yet they make a lot of money (almost always) or in cases that appear to be completely altruistic they serve the interests of the people who run the journal in some positive way, at least enough for those people to continue running the journal. I personally have not had a salary since 2018, and while I do still referee papers and take it very seriously, you cannot expect everyone to do it, all the time. Should people who refuse to referee papers be banned from publishing? I don't think so, but if you do ban them, they will publish somewhere else and your journal may miss out on publishing 100s of papers over the course of that academic's group's life span, and since journals typically charge about $30/paper when people don't have a subscription (and annual fees in the thousands for institutions), the journal may lose money or popularity.

If it's a problem for you that people are refusing to referee papers in your journal to the extent that it is making a significant impact on your journal's prosperity, consider suggesting to the higher-ups to come up with better ways to make it worth it for the referees (e.g. more "referee of the month" awards, gift cards, or maybe a small honorarium as a token of appreciation for the work they do to keep your journal running).

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    Journals do not pay referees and yet they make a lot of money (almost always) I'd put money on most journals losing money, actually. If the industry is profitable as a whole, it's because the few biggest journals make tons of money and subsidize all the journals that don't. – Allure Mar 25 at 23:35
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    Similar experience tells me that they slow down everything they (the Great Firewall) does not recognize. This is why I'm extremely suspicious of fast VPNs. I'm sure they only allow VPN traffic that they know how to decode. – pipe Mar 25 at 23:56
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    To answer your question in the comment below the question. I basically said the same thing you said here, but in a very short manner. I am a native Chinese living in Taiwan. I left the comment for the OP without formally answering the question because I worry about the retaliation in the future. You seem to be the one on this page who has more insights. Thank you for saying these things that most Westerners don't understand. +1 – scaaahu Mar 26 at 5:54
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    Thanks @scaaahu. I'm Canadian and not of Chinese descent, so hopefully I don't have a bias: I just quoted exact emails from Chinese professors. It's unfortunate that a lot of Westerners don't understand or care much to get it right. – user1271772 Mar 26 at 16:01
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    I'm guessing that the problem is Google reCaptcha, served from google.com and gstatic.com (both are needed). – wizzwizz4 Mar 27 at 12:16
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As a (former) associative editor, I can assure you that it is very difficult and highly frustrating to find reviewers. Reviewers do not get rewarded, especially outside academia, and a good review can take days. My average is probably an afternoon plus some time to think about it.

Some highly regarding academics only review for conferences / journal that they themselves submit, and the custom of giving reviews to graduate students so that they learn how to do reviews and discuss it with their supervisors has pretty much finished because it is now considered a violation of confidentiality. Struggling assistant professors will be jaded by their experience and not so willing to do unrewarded community service. If we use the usual number of three reviewers, everyone with a Ph.D. should review at least three times the number of papers they submitted.

My recent experiences do not agree with yours (which just shows that anecdotal data is not very trustworthy) nor does it agree with the nice statistics in a previous answer. I had much better luck with Indian and Chinese academics than with US academics, which are in general much more likely to accept invitations than people in industry.

Finding reviewers is extremely frustrating and I run into free-loaders, which is upsetting. And then, after I scurried google scholar for potential reviewers, get no answers or non accepts, the editor sends me an automatic email telling me how important a short time in review is.

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I am not sure refereeing or not refereeing has (or should have) any ethical implications. People referee articles for various reasons, and they don't referee for various reasons.

One may ask: what happens if nobody referees anything? Still I don't think the sky would fall on us in this case. Something would probably have to change, for example, journals would have to pay referees, or some other solution would be found.

For example, Feynman avoided refereeing anything (https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5020-4). Feynman: "I myself don’t referee any papers." Weiner: "What was your attitude on that?" Feynman: "(I don't want to give a long quote here, but it is very interesting)".

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  • See this question: academia.stackexchange.com/q/29079/19607 – Kimball Mar 26 at 12:27
  • @Kimball : So most of the answers there offer some "quotas" to referee. However, I am just not sure one has ethical obligations to referee. Otherwise we should find Feynman highly unethical. I still think he had the right to choose his battles. – akhmeteli Apr 26 at 10:52

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