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Septiembre 22, 2023

Full International Edition (2014-22): The affiliation game of Saudi Arabian higher education & research institutions

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:

  • We show that Saudi Arabia, with 109 Highly Cited Researchers in 2022 has a 5 to 10 times higher share of HCRs amongst its researchers (0.44 %) compared to countries such as Spain, Germany or France, and twice as high than Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have some of the highest share of HCRs amongst its researchers.
  • The number of HCRs primarily affiliated to a Saudi Arabian institution has been growing from 27 in 2014 to 109 in 2022, while the secondary affiliations have fallen from 129 in 2014 to 10 in 2020. As a reminder, since 2014 ARWU no longer takes into account secondary affiliations for its ranking.
  • 75 % of Saudi Arabian HCRs in 2022 have a second foreign affiliation; far higher than for the other countries we looked at, where foreign secondary affiliations accounted for 0-13%.  The share of foreign second affiliations depends on the 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 & Technology (41%). Most Saudi Arabian universities are not concerned by this phenomenon. From the 274 HCRs affiliated to Saudi Arabian institutions between 2014-22, there were only 64 HCRs which indicated solely Saudi Arabian institutions in their affiliations. 
  • The 8 countries, which appeared most often in secondary affiliations of Saudi Arabian HCRs between 2014-2022 were: China (44 HCRs), Spain (19 HCRs), USA (16 HCRs), Turkey (14 HCRs), India and UK (both 13 HCRs), Italy and Germany (both 12 HCRs). Those represent 139 HCRs out of the of the total 210 different HCRs, stemming from 41 countries, who have indicated Saudi Arabia as their primary affiliation and a foreign institution as a secondary affiliation, between 2014-2022. In relative terms, compared to the total number of HCRs in the country those numbers are particularly high for Turkey (in 2022, 67% compared to its own number of HCRs), India (13%) and Spain (11%).
  • For each of those 8 countries we identified the main countries which appear in secondary affiliations for HCRs primarily affiliated to the country, and vice versa the main countries appearing in primary affiliations, when a researcher indicates the country as a secondary affiliation. In most cases it is the same country that appears in primary and secondary affiliation. This is common in many countries since researchers often have fully legitimate double affiliations to e.g. a university and research centre or hospital. Saudi Arabia had just one such case in the past 9 years.
  • The affiliation history in the Highly Cited Researchers™ list from Clarivate™ of the 139 HCRs from the 8 countries have been analysed in depth and is described in this report. Being aware of those cases will hopefully help institutions identify affiliation details that 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 Researchers5. More importantly, investigating these cases is important for ethical, and possibly legal, 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.
  • Looking at all those cases helped to understand better the patterns of affiliation switches and identity 3 main models of affiliation switches:
  • Model 1 (When primary becomes secondary model), for cases where after several years of primary affiliation with one institution, the HCR switches their primary affiliation to secondary affiliation, leaving the place to the Saudi university. This happened for 49% of the analysed cases.
  • Model 2 (The rollercoaster careers model) represents affiliation practices with strong fluctuations by e.g. switching each year affiliation order or having affiliations to various Saudi Arabian universities. This happened for 9% of the analysed cases.
  • Model 3 (The True Saudi? model) stands for cases where HCRs enter the HCR list from the beginning with a Saudi university as primary affiliation and a foreign institution as secondary affiliation; they never make any switches. The emphasis in this model is on the question mark in the model name, as from the data alone it is not clear if it’s either a fully legitimate case where the main employer is the Saudi Arabian university or a case where the switch was made before the publication of the final HCR list. This happened for 42% of the analysed cases.
  • Some countries seem to favour some of the affiliation switch models, as e.g. for India and Turkey where the large majority of cases were Model 3, while in most cases in Italy or Spain the affiliation switches followed Model 1.
  • We highlight some cases of universities, whose position in the ShanghaiRanking’s ARWU has been affected by potential gaming practices of Saudi Arabian universities. We show how lower ranked universities with few HCRs can be deeply affected with changes of ranks of over 100 places.

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.

See the full report

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 PAÍShttps://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 PAÍShttps://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).


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