Analysing affiliation practices in the Highly Cited Researchers™ list from Clarivate™ and explaining the consequences on the ShanghaiRanking's Academic Ranking of World Universities
On 04/05/2023 we published a Full International Edition (2014-22) of the report, by expanding the analysis to 139 cases worldwide between 2014-2022 and going in more depth into Saudi Arabian affiliations. The report on this page was published by SIRIS Academic on the 10/04/2023.
On the 31st of March 2023, EL PAÍS published an article, which explained that the highly cited chemist 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 production.
This is, to the best of our knowledge, the first time that such a decision is taken by a university. This decision is likely to have a massive impact not only in Spain but around the world, as universities reconsider their rights and obligations of their academic staff at a time of growing global competition.
In this short report, we limit our analysis to a review of the Highly Cited Researchers™ list produced by Clarivate™ (henceforth HCR), a list of around 7000 researchers who stand out by having published multiple highly cited papers (articles in the top 1% by citation) over the last decade.
For universities, having HCR employed is important because it is considered a mark of quality of the research ecosystem and increases attractiveness. However, the main reason is because the list of HCR is a key Indicator of the ShanghaiRanking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU): a single Highly Cited Scholar can enable a university to gain up to 200 places1.
Rafael Luque has been included in the HCR list since 2018 and his primary affiliation is currently King Saud University in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia).
Rafael Luque argued in the article of EL PAÍS, that “Without me, the University of Córdoba will drop 300 places. [...] I put it in the Shanghai ranking. Being in the ranking is entirely due to me.”
This is factually wrong, because Rafel Luque indicated the University of Cordoba only as a secondary affiliation, and King Saud University as a primary affiliation. Due to past gaming practices of Saudi Arabian universities, since 2015 ShanghaiRanking’s ARWU decided to take only primary affiliations into account in their ranking. For this reason, the University of Cordoba (currently ranked 837-848th in the world and 32nd in Spain) will not suffer major consequences from the suspension of this researcher. Indeed, we show that by falsely indicating a primary affiliation with King Saud University, Rafael Luque has single handedly caused the University of Cordoba to lose close to 150 positions: if he had correctly indicated his Cordoba as his primary affiliation, then the University would have been ranked 684-690th in the world and 21-22th in Spain2.
Worryingly, the case of Rafael Luque is not unique.
Saudi Arabia, with 112 Highly Cited Researchers has a 5 to 10 times higher share of HCRs amongst its researchers (0.45 %) compared to countries such as Spain, Germany or France. 44 of these HCRs are reported by Clarivate to only be associated with Saudi Arabian institutions through research fellowships and not through main employment. Rafael Luque is one of them, together with 6 other Spanish HCRs. Those 44 cases are mainly distributed amongst the King Saud University and the King Abdulaziz University, accounting for over half of their affiliated Highly Cited Researchers. It is possible that the true number is even higher since in 2021 only 9 researchers were listed with this type of affiliation to Saudi Arabian universities.
We further highlight that amongst the 112 Highly Cited Researchers of Saudi Arabia, a surprisingly high number, 11 HCRs, indicate Spanish institutions as secondary affiliations (second behind only China, which appears as secondary affiliation for 12 HCRs). We go on to analyse the affiliation details of some of those apparent 11 Saudi Arabian researchers who indicate Spanish institutions as secondary affiliation, and find that for 7 of the 11 they entered the HCR list with a Spanish primary affiliation, but, for most of them 1 year later, started indicating a Saudi Arabian university as their primary affiliation.
Being aware of those cases could serve those institutions to investigate whether the affiliation details should be corrected and thus ensure that the credit (amongst others an increase in the HiCi indicator of the ShanghaiRanking's ARWU) is correctly attributed to the main employer of those Highly Cited Researchers3.
More importantly, investigating these cases is important for ethical, and possibly legal4, reasons: indicating an affiliation that is not that of your main employer in a database or a scientific publication is questionable if not downright unacceptable.
1 ShanghaiRanking’s ARWU includes five other indicators but are far harder for a university to influence: whereas you can hire a Highly Cited Scholar to increase your score in the HiCi indicator, a Nobel Prize must be working in your university when she is awarded the prize for this to count.
2 ARWU ranks universities outside the top 100 in groups (i.e. 801-900 in the case of the University of Cordoba). The more precise positions we give are estimations.
3 We underline that we do not take position on the current role of rankings in higher education. Indeed, we agree with many commentators that they have become unduly influent and that their methodologies are often questionable.
4 We do not enter into the legal implications of such practices in this report.