Report: Researchers associated with Saudi universities decline amid controversy

Saudi Arabian universities currently have affiliations with only 76 of the world’s most cited researchers, compared to 109 in 2022, as reported by the Barcelona-based research consultancy Siris Academic, stating that the decline may impact the global rankings of some Saudi institutions.

Share the post
Photo via Pexels

The number of prominent researchers associated with Saudi Arabian universities has significantly declined following revelations that the institutions were enticing distinguished scientists abroad to declare a Saudi affiliation, often in exchange for cash, as part of an effort to enhance their rankings.

Saudi Arabian universities currently have affiliations with only 76 of the world’s most cited researchers, lower compared to 109 in 2022, as reported by the Barcelona-based research consultancy Siris Academic, stating that the decline may impact the global rankings of some Saudi institutions.

The decline in affiliations with Saudi Arabian universities among Highly Cited Researchers (HCR) is attributed to increased scrutiny from institutions globally, where concerns were raised about scientists declaring affiliations in exchange for payment or minimal consulting commitments.

Clarivate, the company responsible for compiling the annual list of HCRs, implemented stricter scrutiny, also contributing to the drop in affiliations.

Longstanding history

The practice of Saudi universities paying top scientists for affiliations has a longstanding history. In 2011, the publication Science reported instances where Saudi institutions paid renowned scientists worldwide to declare a secondary affiliation with a Saudi institute in exchange for minimal academic commitments, such as brief visits each year.

These affiliations were used to enhance the institutions’ positions in international rankings, including the Shanghai Ranking, which considers the number of HCRs at a university.

Domingo Docampo, a mathematician at the University of Vigo, said, “Now that the scam is discovered, it will be less and less effective.”

In 2014, the Shanghai Ranking attempted to address the issue by ceasing to consider academics’ secondary affiliations. However, this didn’t fully resolve the problem, as foreign academics began declaring their primary affiliation as a Saudi institute and switching their home institution to a secondary position.

The controversial practice gained attention this year when an investigation by El País revealed that several Spanish scientists had declared a Saudi affiliation despite actually working in Spain. A subsequent report from Siris Academic showed that Saudi Arabian institutions had a disproportionately high number of HCRs with a secondary affiliation at a foreign university.

The number of Saudi-affiliated HCRs has dropped by 30 percent since last year, according to the analysis by Siris Academic. Of last year’s 109 Saudi-affiliated HCRs, 52 have fallen off the list, while 13 have replaced their primary Saudi affiliation with a foreign one.

These shifts are influenced by scientific institutions urging researchers to rectify their affiliations. The Spanish National Council for Scientific Research, for instance, has initiated disciplinary proceedings against five of its researchers this month for manipulating their affiliations.

In 2022, there were 11 Saudi-affiliated HCRs with a secondary Spanish affiliation. This year, however, none have listed a secondary Spanish affiliation, with several scientists in Spain reverting to listing their Spanish institution as their primary affiliation.

Decline in European countries and China

This year, there has been a decline in the number of Saudi-affiliated researchers based in various countries, including Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and China. The Jülich Research Institute, for instance, prompted a plant physiologist to alter his affiliations following indications from Clarivate that corrections might be necessary, according to a spokesperson.

The University of Birmingham refrained from commenting on an environmental scientist who initially appeared on the HCR list with a UK affiliation, then switched to a Saudi one, and reverted to the UK affiliation this year. However, a spokesperson stated, “If there is an issue with an incorrect affiliation, then we would work with the academic to correct it.”

Changes due to strict filtering

Stricter filtering by Clarivate could contribute to the observed changes. In its updated HCR methodology, Clarivate claims to have excluded 1,000 candidates from its list this year, compared to 500 the previous year.

Clarivate’s David Pendlebury notes enhanced filters, including scrutiny of publishing patterns, self-citation, and citations from co-authors. The new measures also include the exclusion of scientists involved in scientific misconduct proceedings.

Pendlebury clarifies that declaring a primary affiliation to an institution different from the one where a scientist holds a permanent, tenured position is not a criterion for exclusion from the HCR list.

Mira Petrović, a chemist at the Catalan Institute for Water Research, welcomes Clarivate’s efforts to address the affiliation issue, stating that researchers are now more aware that such manipulations are visible.

Impacting the ranking of Saudi universities

The decrease in the number of Saudi-affiliated researchers, with a net reduction of 33, could impact the rankings of Saudi universities, potentially causing a decline in the Shanghai Ranking.

The simulation by Siris suggests that King Abdulaziz University, for example, may fall out of the top 200 universities on the list. The analysis emphasizes the need for strategic investments in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s own research and higher education system capacity.

The Saudi Ministry of Education, along with representatives of King Saud University and King Abdulaziz University, did not respond to requests for comment regarding the decline in the number of Saudi-affiliated researchers.

Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

banner place

What to read next...
Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

Sign Up for Weekly Top 12 News

Expert picks in the intl ed world, in your inbox.

Get the Top 12 trending international education news stories from around the world, sourced from authoritative media outlets and publications worldwide. 

This expertly curated newsletter aims to support the global knowledge base of international education stakeholders – higher education institutions, recruitment partners, government officials, service providers, and students. 

The newsletter is delivered to subscribers’ inbox every Wednesday evening at 10:30 PM PT / 1:39 AM ET. 

We respect and protect your privacy. If you do not wish to receive future issues of the MSM Reporter, you may unsubscribe at any time.
Read our privacy policy