Saudi universities entice top scientists to switch affiliations — sometimes with cash

Saudi universities entice top scientists to switch affiliations — sometimes with cash

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.Credit: Abdullah Al-Eisa/Getty

Research institutions in Saudi Arabia are gaming global university rankings by encouraging top researchers to change their main affiliations, sometimes in exchange for cash, and often with little obligation to do meaningful work. That’s the conclusion of a report that shows how, over the past decade, dozens of the world’s most highly cited researchers have switched their primary affiliations to universities in the country. That, in turn, has boosted the standing of Saudi Arabian institutions in university ranking tables, which consider the citation impacts of an institution’s researchers.

“We have found a pattern of sudden appearance of a Saudi primary affiliation,” says Yoran Beldengrün, who co-authored the report, published on 4 May by SIRIS Academic, a consultancy in Barcelona, Spain. “Gaming practices and misleading affiliations feed suspicions about the reliability ofscience,” says the report.

“Stating an affiliation that does not respond to a work relation, with the objective of increasing the ranking of an institution, is not in agreement with good scientific practices,” says Pere Puigdomènech, a plant molecular biologist and member of the European Science Foundation’s Forum on Research Integrity. “The manipulation of indicators is a byproduct of the idolatry of ranking and indexes, that has been repeatedly denounced as misguided.”

The analysis looked at the list of highly cited researchers (HCRs) maintained by publishing-analytics firm Clarivate, based in London, which features scholars whose papers rank in the top 1% most cited papers in Clarivate’s Web of Science database for a given field or year. The number of researchers on the list who have a primary affiliation in Saudi Arabia increased from 27 to 109 between 2014 and 2022, the report found. These researchers work in a range of disciplines, and many have secondary affiliations in countries including Spain, China, the United Kingdom, Germany and India. The trend means that Saudi Arabia is disproportionately flush with HCRs: in 2022, 0.44% of its researchers were HCRs, compared with 0.19% of US scholars and 0.08% of German researchers.

“The high number of highly cited researchers is the main reason why some Saudi universities are ranked among the top 150 worldwide,” says Domingo Docampo, a mathematician at the University of Vigo in Spain who consults for SIRIS, but was not involved in the report. In a 2013 paper1, Docampo used public data, including researcher affiliations, to reproduce the results of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking — a leading league table that takes into account Clarivate’s HCR list.

Saudi affiliations grow: Line chart showing the number of affiliations in Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2022.

Source: SIRIS Academic. The affiliation game of Saudi Arabian higher education & research institutions (2023).Source:

SIRIS’s report follows revelations in Spanish in newspaper El País, which in April reported that chemist Raphael Luque had been suspended from the University of Cordoba in Spain, where he was employed full-time, after switching his primary affiliation to KSU. The change is thought to have reduced the University of Cordoba’s position in the Shanghai Ranking by more than 140 places. Luque, who did not respond to Nature’s request for comment, told El País that he didn’t receive money directly from Saudi institutions, beyond funding for his research and premium travel and hotels.

Other Spanish researchers told El País that they have received money. Some have been forced by their Spanish universities to give up their Saudi positions, or are being investigated amid concerns that they moved their affiliations in exchange for money.

Cash offers

Although the analysis of affiliation switches is new, awareness of the practice isn’t. SIRIS’s report does not detail specific financial arrangements between institutions and researchers, but since the early 2010s, leading researchers worldwide have reported being approached by Saudi universities with offers of cash in exchange for being added to a researcher’s affiliations. The arrangements often seem to require minimal contributions to the institution’s research.

In 2011, Science reported that 61 researchers had signed such contracts with King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, with varying financial terms and levels of contribution. At the time, King Abdulaziz University and King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh, also mentioned in the Science story, responded by acknowledging they had programmes to recruit top international scientists, but said they used the best practices for international collaborations; neither responded to Nature’s requests for comment for this story.

In 2014, apparently wise to the idea that institutions could game its table through multiple affiliations, the Shanghai Ranking started to consider only primary affiliations of researchers in Clarivate’s HCR list. (Representatives of the Shanghai Ranking did not reply to Nature’s requests for comment.) But the practice continued, this time concentrated on primary affiliations. In the following years, Saudi primary affiliations rose, and academics with secondary affiliations in the country dropped from 130 to 10 in the same period, found SIRIS’s report (see ‘Saudi affiliations grow’).

In 2019, shortly after she appeared on Clarivate’s 2018 HCR list, chemist Mira Petrović at the Catalan Institute for Water Research in Girona, Spain, received an e-mail from KSU inviting her to form a collaboration. “I thought they wanted to propose a real collaboration,” says Petrović. But after a brief exchange, she received an e-mail bluntly asking to change her affiliation in exchange for cash. “Your primary affiliation should be King Saud University on,” says the e-mail. “Once your affiliation has been changed,” it adds, “you will receive 70,000 Euro.” Petrovic declined. “What they were proposing was devoid of any academic content,” she says.

Clear pattern

Although some of the 109 HCRs on the 2022 list with a primary Saudi affiliation are based in the nation, many do not have what would typically be considered formal academic employment at a Saudi institution. At least 44 (40%) have only a research fellowship or are guest researchers; Clarivate marks them on its online list with an asterisk. (There were 46 asterisks in the 2022 list — two corresponded to affiliations in China, and the rest to Saudi ones.) “Most researchers follow the established tradition of using the secondary affiliation for such appointments and reserve the primary affiliation slot for their main employer,” wrote David Pendlebury, Clarivate’s head of research analysis, in an e-mail to Nature.

The SIRIS report says that many affiliation changes follow a pattern: a scholar enters the HCR list with one main affiliation, then switches to a Saudi one in later years (affiliations are self-reported to Clarivate). In some cases, researchers switch back to their original institution after a year or two.

Three-quarters of Saudi-affiliated HCRs have a secondary affiliation in a different country. That is markedly higher than those based in other countries: only 2% of HCRs with a primary affiliation in the United States have a secondary affiliation elsewhere, as do 13% with a primary affiliation in Spain.

Many in the research community criticize reliance on rankings, because they distort a university’s priorities and cannot capture an institution’s true value. “All the quantitative indicators based on bibliometrics are very delicate in use, and subject to gaming,” says Ghislaine Filliatreau, research-integrity officer at INSERM, the French national institute for health and medical research, who sits on the Shanghai Ranking’s international advisory board. “So, for all those types of indicators, better to never use quantifications as measurements, but as indications.”

The Saudi ministry of education did not reply to Nature’s request for comment.

Source link