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Opinion
Should Online Essays Be Used In Academic Evaluations?
Is the new academic evaluation practice based on hits on the Internet innovation or damage to the current evaluation standards?
 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 9, 2017
LI SHIGONG

China's current academic evaluation system sees publications in core journals as a basic index to measure the academic qualification and quality of an academic institute, a university or an individual. Individuals who have more publications in first-class journals will have bigger opportunities for promotion within the academic system. As a result, those who want to get a higher professional title or get promoted face fierce competition to have their essays published in the limited amount of core academic journals.

Zhejiang University, based in Hangzhou City, east China's Zhejiang Province, is one of China's most prestigious universities. The university has recently issued a document that overthrows this widely accepted principle. Its new practice is this: instead of core journals, if individuals have their academic essays published in influential magazines or WeChat public accounts, such as People's Daily and other state-level media outlets, and get more than 100,000 hits for an essay, this will be seen as tantamount to an essay published in a core journal. This essay will thus be adopted as an important reference for promotion or other personal academic evaluation.

Soon after this new practice was announced, the whole of academia in China became split on this topic. Some believe it's an innovation that reforms the current academic evaluation standards and that is also goes along with the development of the Internet, as nowadays, the media's WeChat and Weibo public accounts are becoming influential communication platforms across the country.

However, some others argue that this new practice will damage the solemnity of academic essays. College teachers, scientific researchers and other academic personnel will begin to spend more time winning so-called fame for them, instead of focusing on academic research. Besides, the amount of hits for a certain essay is not necessarily connected with the quality of the article, as many popular online articles actually feature trivial matters such as rumors and publicity stunts in entertainment circles, while serious articles attract far fewer readers. In this sense, if they are to attract ordinary readers' eyeballs, academic essays risk being transformed into shallow and superficial articles. Finally, even if it is well received on new media platforms, an essay does not certainly have high academic value. Besides, producing fake numbers of hits is also technically possible. Thus, this new practice is quite doubtable and it's hard to imagine the kind of impact it might have on China's academic evaluation system.

Facing the debate, Zhejiang University responded that to determine whether an essay will finally be admitted as qualified, it will first go through stringent evaluation procedures, which means if the essay does not meet certain academic standards, even if it has numerous readers on media platforms, it will not be seen as equivalent to an essay published in core journals and thus will be disqualified for the reference.

Good for spreading knowledge

Wang Qingfeng (Nanfang Daily): Nowadays, academic essays are mostly published in academic journals, but some of these journals are limited to a small academic circle and some only have a circulation of several thousand. In some extreme cases, authors of these essays may even brag about their articles within this small circle, which might prevent the overall progress of a certain academic branch. To a large extent, to make use of media platforms will help to spread academic essays, or it can be seen as a supplement to the old method that solely depends on core journals. In this sense, Zhejiang University's new practice amounts to an innovation in the academic evaluation system.

However, it is important to point out that although the channels and methods of publishing academic essays are variable, the rigid academic standard can never be changed. Academic committees still have to impose stringent evaluation rules on the essays that have huge numbers of readers in influential journals. The standards for articles in core journals are also the same as those for articles on the Internet.

Scientific research, teaching or other work all have their respective rules to follow. We need to respect these rules and different evaluation standards, as this will help to improve colleges' comprehensive academic evaluation system. We hope that the new practice proposed by Zhejiang University will help to inspire new innovative momentum in China's scientific research arena.

Zhang Xiaoran (www.cinic.org.cn): For so many years, the criteria for promotion of college teachers or institute researchers have been based on the number of essays they have published in core journals. In this sense, Zhejiang University is innovative in setting up new criteria for promotion: the influence or communication effect of an essay. Even if someone does not have a lot of scientific research results to boast of, his or her limited achievements will be regarded as valuable material to shore up their promotion and academic evaluation if their work brings about major influence through new communication channels like the Internet.

Zhejiang University has made a big step forward by moving the emphasis also to the effect of an essay's circulation. In the long run, this practice can not only change the old habit of core journals outweighing all other factors, but will also make it possible for intellectuals to provide more opinions on social and public life.

To break the old rule of taking core journal publications as a criterion is already a trend, but it still needs further discussion as to whether the number of readers can equate to the academic value of an essay. Generally speaking, we can't take it for granted that the bigger the number is, the more valuable the essay is. Obviously, nowadays, entertainment news or chicken soup for the soul tends to attract numerous readers, while valuable scientific essays or positive and solemn topics are not favored so much. Thus, it might happen that when someone submits an excellent academic essay to an influential media outlet, the organization may choose not to publish it out of concern for low ratings.

Therefore, the number of essays published in core journals should remain the most important criterion of reference for intellectuals' promotion, while the communication effect of online essays can be seen as a supplementary reference. We applaud Zhejiang University's courage and pioneering spirit. We also hope to see the university work out detailed evaluation rules as soon as possible.

An academic reform attempt

He Mei (China Youth Daily): In order to reach a higher professional title, intellectuals work very hard to get their essays published in core journals. There is even a gray industrial chain that provides fake essays for those who want to get promoted but have no excellent essays of their own. The single, solidified and essay-centered academic evaluation system is to be blamed for the mess. Professional title evaluations and master's or Ph.D. degree awards all depend on whether a person has essays published in the limited number of authoritative core journals. People in academia have long appealed that core journals are not academic judges and by no means should professional titles be decided on this basis.

Some essays published in core journals run to tens of thousands of words, but most of them are extracts grabbed from others' masterpieces or excellent research essays without in-depth analysis, academic criticism, advanced exploration or foreseeing counter arguments. In a word, most of these essays were written for the sake of producing an essay. What is the value of such essays? In some cases, these essays are heading directly for the garbage can after being printed.

Thus, academic results should not be corralled in core journals in dull and obscure language; they should be disseminated openly in a more readable way. Probably, this is the best way to approach academic ideas.

Against the backdrop of rapid Internet development, intellectuals, academicians and the social value of academic research should play a bigger role in the era of new media. It's important to make clear standards for the confirmation of excellent online essays.

Zhu Wei (edu.163.com): We should laud Zhejiang University's bravery in taking the lead. Recent years have seen successful transformation of conventional media, and new media platforms like WeChat and Weibo are exerting increasing influence on society, thanks to their fast speed and many other merits. Apart from the government's preference for them, the public also feels like accepting these new platforms. Academic essays appearing on such platforms are thus more easily discovered and shared by readers. Actually, to some extent, Zhejiang University's practice is reverting to the original intention of China's academic evaluation system: to emphasize the value and influence of scientific results, rather than whether they have been published in core journals.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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