Analysing development of affiliation practices in the Highly Cited Researchers™ list from Clarivate™ between 2014-2022
At the end of March 2023, EL PAÍS published an article, reporting that the 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 production.
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.
In the weeks after this case was reported, we published a study, in which we contextualised such affiliation practices within the Highly Cited Researchers™ list produced by Clarivate™, a list of around 7000 researchers who stand out by having published, over the last decade, multiple papers which are amongst the top 1% more cited - so called “highly cited papers”.
We showed that the case of the Highly Cited Researcher (henceforth HCR) Rafael Luque, who indicated a Saudi Arabian university, instead of the University of Córdoba as primary affiliation, was not unique in Spain: in 2022 a surprisingly high number of Highly Cited Researchers affiliated to a Saudi Arabian institution, indicate Spanish institutions as secondary affiliations (11 HCRs, thus the second country behind only China, which appears as secondary affiliation for 12 HCRs). As a consequence we analysed the affiliation history of those 11 Spanish HCRs.
For universities, employing a HCR is considered a mark of quality of the research ecosystem and increases attractiveness. It also impacts the university’s ranking within the ShanghaiRanking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), since the number of HCR is one of its indicators. In practice, adding a single Highly Cited Researcher HCR might result in a university gaining more than 100 places1. In the report, we therefore also showed how such switches of affiliations affected some of the Spanish universities.
The attention drawn by the press around the topic led to further cases being questioned, notably in the Spanish context, where, investigations of EL PAÍS showed that many of the HCRs obtained financial incentives to switch their affiliation to a Saudi Arabian institution, without having to switch employer2. A case of an intermediary agency, which received commissions for convincing HCRs to switch their affiliation, was also revealed3. As a consequence, institutional ethical committees have been seized to assess the affiliation practices and formulate recommendations4.
The present report aims at going more in depth into the topic of Saudi Arabian affiliations in the HCR list by looking this time at the entire timespan between 2014-2022, understanding the evolution of affiliation practices of Saudi Arabian institutions, and investigate more in depth the cases of the 8 countries, which appeared most often in secondary affiliations of Saudi Arabian HCRs between 2014-22. The main results from the study are the following ones:
This report, together with the investigations by journalists, brings to light specific cases of questionable affiliation practices by around 1% of researchers within a single list representing 0.1% of all researchers in the world. While this might sound very anecdotal, it touches upon the heart of a broad range of topics, which are subject to ongoing debate in the field of research: research integrity, research quality assessment, relevance of rankings and scientometric indicators, or precarity of academic research careers. And all of this is set within a wider context of geopolitical influence, use of soft power, and competition for talent.
Gaming practices and misleading affiliations feed suspicions about the reliability of science, and undermine the remarkable work done by most scientists the world over. Correct affiliation practices are one small bit of a general effort to maintain scientific integrity and earn trust in science from both decision makers and the general public.
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 they are awarded the prize for this to count.
2 M.Ansede (18/04/2023), Saudi Arabia pays Spanish scientists to pump up global university rankings. EL PAÍS. https://english.elpais.com/science-tech/2023-04-18/saudi-arabia-pays- spanish-scientists-to-pump-up-global-university-rankings.html
3 M.Ansede (20/04/2023), Un catedrático capta con su empresa tapadera a científicos españoles para que mientan y digan que trabajan en una universidad saudí. EL PAÍS. https://elpais.com/ciencia/2023-04-20/un-catedratico-capta-con-su-empresa-tapadera-a-cientificos-espanoles-para-que-mientan-y-digan-que-trabajan-en-una-universidad-saudi.html
4 EFE (19/04/2023) ^, Universidades investigará malas praxis de científicos con centros saudíes, LA VANGUARDIA.https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20230419/8908008/universidades- investigara-malas-praxis-investigadores-centros-saudies.html
M.Ansede (20/04/2023), Los científicos de la institución del químico Damià Barceló piden su suspensión cautelar tras su implicación en el escándalo de la trama saudí. EL PAÍS. https://elpais.com/ciencia/2023-04-27/los-cientificos-de-la-institucion-del-quimico-damia-barcelo-piden-su-suspension-cautelar-tras-su-implicacion-en-el-escandalo-de-la-trama-saudi.html
M.Ansede (20/04/2023),One of the most internationally cited scientists, Ai Koyanagi, forced to renounce her controversial contract with a Saudi university. EL PAÍS.https://english.elpais.com/science-tech/2023-04-20/one-of-the-most-internationally-cited-scientists-ai-koyanagi-forced-to-renounce-her-controversial-contract-with-a-saudi-university.html
5 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 influential and that their methodologies are often questionable (for more on this, see the section “An issue of Research Integrity?” in our report).