Saudi universities’ top researcher affiliations drop by 30% amid tighter checks

The decline in Saudi-affiliated HCRs by 30% since 2022 is partly due to scientific institutions urging researchers to amend their affiliations. For instance, the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research initiated disciplinary proceedings against five researchers for affiliation manipulation.

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Recent reports revealed a significant decline in the number of top researchers affiliated with Saudi Arabian universities. This development follows revelations that these institutions had been enticing eminent scientists from abroad to declare a Saudi affiliation, often in exchange for cash, to boost their global rankings.

In 2022, Saudi Arabian universities were affiliated with 109 of the world’s most cited researchers. This number has now dropped to 76, according to Siris Academic, a research consultancy based in Barcelona, Spain.

The decrease is attributed to concerns raised by universities and research institutions in Europe and other regions about the ethicality of such affiliations. Additionally, tighter scrutiny from Clarivate, a publishing analytics company, has influenced this trend.

There were previous cases where Saudi universities have reportedly engaged in practices to inflate their standing in international rankings by paying top scientists globally to declare secondary affiliations with them. A similar incident was first reported by Science in 2011. Despite the Shanghai Ranking ceasing to consider secondary affiliations in 2014, academics began listing Saudi institutions as their primary affiliation, shifting their home institutions to secondary positions.

The manipulation of affiliations came under scrutiny after an investigation by El País in 2023, revealing that several Spanish scientists declared Saudi affiliations while primarily working in Spain. Siris Academic’s report showed that Saudi institutions had an unusually high number of highly cited researchers (HCRs) with secondary foreign affiliations.

The reason behind the decline

The decline in Saudi-affiliated HCRs by 30% since 2022 is partly due to scientific institutions urging researchers to amend their affiliations. For instance, the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research initiated disciplinary proceedings against five researchers for affiliation manipulation.

Countries like Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK, and China have seen a decrease in their researchers listing Saudi affiliations. The Jülich Research Institute and the University of Birmingham have taken steps to address incorrect affiliations.

According to a spokesperson, “Clarivate signaled to us that there may be a need for correction.”

Clarivate’s stricter methodology in its HCR list, which now includes more filters and checks, is another factor contributing to the decline. Red flags such as publishing an excessive number of papers, high self-citation rates, and anomalous co-author citations are now taken into account.

“We have added more filters and checks to our analysis,” said David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information.

Clarivate also excluded scientists involved in scientific misconduct but did not exclude those declaring a primary affiliation with an institution where they do not hold a permanent position.

“It was high time Clarivate did something to address the affiliation issue…I think now all researchers are aware that these manipulations are very visible,” said researcher Mira Petrović.

Despite this, there has been partial compensation, with 20 new Saudi HCRs entering the list and 12 switching to a Saudi primary affiliation. However, some of these changes, like in the case of a researcher at Semmelweis University, have been attributed to administrative errors.

The net reduction of 33 Saudi-affiliated researchers may lead to a fall in several Saudi institutions’ global rankings. For example, King Abdulaziz University might drop out of the top 200 universities in the Shanghai Ranking, as its HCRs are reduced from 31 to 12. Siris consultant Yoran Beldengrün suggests that Saudi Arabian investment should focus more on strengthening their own research and higher education capacities rather than on artificially boosting rankings.

“The Saudi Arabian money spent on virtual affiliation switches of foreign employed HCRs should rather be directed into strategic assets for strengthening their own research and higher education system capacity,” said Beldengrün.

The Saudi Ministry of Education and representatives from King Saud University and King Abdulaziz University have not commented on the issue. This decline in Saudi-affiliated top researchers highlights the complexities and challenges in maintaining ethical standards in global academic rankings and the importance of transparent and genuine academic affiliations.

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