Opinion: Training home and away

China's graduate stipend programs offer great opportunities for students and host institutions, but some of the programs' publication requirements may need amending

Jan 25, 2011
Wolf B. Frommer
International collaborations and training are key components of modern science. Thus travel stipends have become a central ingredient of all funding systems across the planet. Over the past decade, Chinese granting agencies and universities have initiated programs that support this trend by funding graduate students to train in labs all over the world for up to two years during their thesis.
Image: Flickr, linkurl:lanchongzi;http://www.flickr.com/photos/lanchongzi/3678120064/
This stipend system represents not only a great opportunity for students, who learn new technologies and improve the fluency in a foreign language, but for the host institution too, since many of the students are outstanding and perform extraordinarily well. There is, however, one issue with the stipend system relating to the publications the students accrue while studying at another institution.As is the rule in many places, the Chinese PhD students are expected to publish a couple of scientific papers as part of their qualification for their degree. While I strongly believe that a defined number of publications should not be a criterion for graduation (the more important measure is the quality of the work), this is certainly beyond the horizon of the issues discussed here. The concern I have with the stipends is that, in order for work published abroad to count towards this requirement, some Chinese universities expect that the students are listed with their home institution as affiliation, in some cases even as the lead institution, in any papers published during the program. This is good practice if the thesis work is part of a real collaboration with the Chinese laboratory, and a negotiation of the terms of publications occurs before the stipend is approved. But in other cases, it may be less appropriate. The order of affiliations, as is the case for the authorship order, will depend on the relative contribution to the project -- the lead affiliation should be the one where most of the work was done. For example, in the case of a two-week visit, only the home institution should be listed. In the case of a two year stay, on the other hand, if the student works on topics unrelated to the interest of their home institution and there is no prior agreement regarding publications, the funding agency or institution would be most appropriately listed in the Acknowledgements. Indeed, the students are frequently co-funded by the host institution, as the stipends -- around US$10-16,000 -- are often not enough to cover the living and research expenses in high cost areas. While the stipend may seem very generous from the Chinese perspective, it may barely cover rent in areas with extremely high costs of living, such as the London, Zürich, New York or the Bay Area. Thus the host institution sometimes contributes to the income of the guest students, and often covers the cost for equipment and consumables. Like the Chinese institutions' contributions in form of the stipend, these items can be mentioned in the Acknowledgements.Even if they fund little more than basic living costs, some Chinese universities argue that the student cannot graduate if their home institution is not listed as an affiliation but only acknowledged for funding, even in cases where there is no intellectual input into the project. This policy makes the students hostages of a policy that is prone to create conflicts. An ideal solution would be to limit the stipends predominantly for true collaborations. Alternatively, the stipends could be used just for training where unrelated projects or clearly divided parts of thesis are pursued. In these cases, the acknowledgement of the funding body should be restricted to the Acknowledgement section of the manuscript. At a minimum, the institutions involved should negotiate such terms prior to the students' acceptance into a host program, a practice not in place in the current system.I commend the Chinese government and Chinese institutions for their generous support of students by stipends, but hope that the affiliation policy can be amended. Many colleagues here have expressed their concerns and some have indicated that they will no longer accept students if this policy is not changed. This would be an unfortunate outcome of a brilliant concept with a few minor flaws.I bring this up not to offend anyone, but to make all scientists aware of potential issues, to prevent additional headaches for students, and to solve a potential conflict that may cast a shadow over some of the relationships.linkurl:Wolf B. Frommer;http://f1000.com/thefaculty/member/279445898313588 is Director of the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, Calif., and a F1000 Member since 2001.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Best Places to Work : Postdocs 2009;http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/03/1/47/1/
[March 2009]*linkurl:Science goes to China;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/home/53133/
[May 2007]*linkurl:Are we training too many scientists?;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/home/24540/
[September 2006]