False affiliations boost Saudi university rankings – Report

Dozens of the world’s most highly cited researchers (HCRs) have changed their primary affiliations to Saudi universities instead of their main employer, despite often being only guest researchers or research fellows at the Saudi institution. This misleading affiliation has boosted the standing of these higher education institutions in university global ranking tables that consider the citation impacts of an institution’s researchers.

This was one of the main findings of a report titled The Affiliation Game of Saudi Arabian Higher Education and Research Institutions and published on 3 May by SIRIS Academic – a European consulting company based in Barcelona, Spain.

The SIRIS report was co-authored by Yoran Beldengrün and Sebastian Stride.

Stride told University World News the report looked exclusively at highly cited researchers from Saudi Arabia with foreign secondary affiliations. He said “the real work” was carried out by journalists such as Manuel Ansede at Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS who uncovered the story behind some of the cases.

According to the SIRIS report, EL PAÍS published an article on 2 April in which it reported that highly cited researcher Rafael Luque, a full-time civil servant of the University of Córdoba in Spain, had been suspended from employment and salary for the next 13 years for the incorrect scientific affiliation of his research output.

“This is, to the best of our knowledge, the first time that such a decision is taken by a university. It is likely to have an important impact not only in Spain but around the world, as universities reconsider the rights and obligations of their academic staff at a time of growing global competition,” the SIRIS report notes in its executive summary.

“The attention drawn by the press around the topic led to further cases being questioned, notably in the Spanish context, where, investigations by EL PAÍS showed that many of the HCRs obtained financial incentives to switch their affiliation to a Saudi Arabian institution, without having to switch employer,” it said.

Key findings

The report presents an analysis of the affiliation practices of HCRs indicating Saudi Arabian institutions as primary affiliations and a foreign institution as a secondary affiliation between 2014 and 2022 by examining the list of HCRs maintained by United Kingdom-based publishing analytics firm Clarivate.

The list includes researchers whose papers rank in the top 1% of most cited papers in Clarivate’s Web of Science database for a given field or year.

The key findings of the study are the following:

• Between 2014 and 2022, the number of researchers on the HCR list who have a primary affiliation in Saudi Arabia increased from 27 to 109. These researchers work in a range of disciplines, and many have secondary affiliations in countries including Spain, China, the UK, Germany and India.

• With 109 HCRs in 2022, Saudi Arabia has a five to 10 times higher share of HCRs among its researchers (0.44%) compared to countries such as Spain, Germany or France, and this is twice as high as Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have some of the highest shares of HCRs among their researchers.

• 75% of Saudi Arabian HCRs in 2022 have a second foreign affiliation; far higher than the United States (2%) and Spain (13%).

• The share of foreign second affiliations depends on the Saudi higher learning institution: it is especially high for King Abdulaziz University (81%) and King Saud University (82%), while it is only half as high for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (41%). Most Saudi Arabian universities are not concerned by this phenomenon. Of the 274 HCRs affiliated to Saudi institutions between 2014 and 2022, there were only 64 HCRs who indicated solely Saudi institutions in their affiliations, the report notes.

The presence of a high number of HCRs at some Saudi universities was highlighted in an October 2022 news article that indicated that in the 2017-21 period, 80% of King Abdulaziz University’s publications had at least one international co-author, almost twice the world average of 39.8%.

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