One of the most cited scientists in the world, the Spanish chemist Rafael Luque, has been suspended without pay for the next 13 years, according to Luque himself and the institution where he worked until recently, the University of Córdoba in Spain. The university has sanctioned Luque for working as a researcher at other centers, such as the King Saud University in Riyadh and the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow, despite holding a full-time publicly funded contract with the Spanish institution.
Luque, 44, is one of the most prolific scientists in Spain. He has published some 700 studies, mainly in the field of so-called green chemistry, which aims to synthesize products such as drugs and fuels while generating less waste. So far this year, Luque has published 58 studies at a rate of one every 37 hours. He has featured on the list of the world’s most cited researchers, compiled by the specialist company Clarivate, for five years. Institutions all over the world compete to hire scientists like Luque, who can move a center up hundreds of positions in international academic rankings such as the influential Shanghai ranking, thusly attracting more students and more funding. “Without me, the University of Córdoba is going to drop 300 places [in the Shanghai ranking]. They have shot themselves in the foot,” said Luque, who attributed his suspension to “pure envy.”
Over a decade ago, leading Saudi universities launched aggressive programs to recruit the world’s most cited scientists. The King Abdulaziz University, for example, offered researchers around $76,000 per year, with the only stipulation being that spend just one week a year on its campus and, of course, add the name of the Saudi institution as a second affiliation, as revealed by industry journal Science.
In 2019, Luque signed on as a researcher at King Saud, in addition to being a professor at the University of Córdoba. The Spanish chemist claimed that he never received money “directly” from either the Saudi or Russian institutions, beyond funding for his analyses, business class travel and luxury hotels. “In my [bank] account, they would not have found a single cent from Russia or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else,” he said.
Without me, the University of Córdoba will drop 300 places in the Shanghai ranking. They have shot themselves in the footRafael Luque, chemist
The current scientific system is governed by the “publish or perish” imperative. Researchers are evaluated by the number of studies they publish in peer-reviewed journals and by the number of times these papers are cited by other colleagues. The well-intentioned mechanism, however, has produced adverse effects, as explained by the British engineer Nick Wise, a researcher at Cambridge University who, in his spare time, seeks out fraud in science. Wise has uncovered shady “factories of scientific studies,” produced by copying and pasting other studies or by automatic text generators, and whose authorship is secretly sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars to inflate resumes. “I found a study by Rafael Luque whose authorship had previously been offered in a group on [the messaging platform] Telegram,” Wise said.
The Spanish researcher published that paper on the degradation of ibuprofen in wastewater five months ago, with six co-authors from the University of Bushehr and another from the University of Tabriz, both in Iran. Luque says that he has never paid to be added to someone else’s research, but admitted he does not know all the Iranian co-authors listed on the study and cannot rule out the possibility some of them did pay to appear. “I obviously don’t know that, but I’m amazed by this issue. Who pays to publish a study? Someone who needs it, maybe, I don’t know,” he said by videoconference from Dhahran, the heart of the Saudi oil industry, where he is considering a collaboration with a local university.
Luque is constantly publishing papers. Last year he authored some 110 articles. So far this year he has published 58. The chemist admitted that since December, he has been using the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT to “polish” his texts. “These months have been quite productive, because there are articles that used to require two or three days and now I do them in one day,” he said. ChatGPT, launched in December, is capable of generating in-depth texts in response to complex questions. Luque said he basically uses it to improve his written expression in English and strongly denies having any relationship with any wholesale research factory.
I found a study by Rafael Luque whose authorship had previously been offered in a group on TelegramNick Wise, Cambridge University engineer
Russian mathematician Alexander Magazinov, like Wise, also spends his spare time combing scientific literature for “tortured phrases”: unusual expressions that are added to plagiarized texts, precisely to avoid the computer programs that detect plagiarism. One example is to replace the usual “artificial intelligence” with “falsified consciousness”. Magazinov mentioned that a non-existent “vegetative electron microscopy” appears in two studies by Luque published with Iranian colleagues.
Scientists around the world use an American website called PubPeer to anonymously and ruthlessly comment on articles by other colleagues, and not always with reason on their side. There are critiques of around 90 of Luque’s studies on PubPeer, many of them from Magazinov himself. A common reproach is that the Spanish chemist’s papers include dozens of unnecessary citations to other articles to artificially inflate the number of citations from other colleagues. In 2018, the University of Córdoba boasted that 84 out of 100 of Luque’s studies were cited by other scientists.
Luque has received many awards including one from the UK Royal Society of Chemistry in 2013 and a mention as a Green Talent in 2011 by the German Ministry of Research. However, this is not the first time he has been involved in a scandal. Two professors at the Tenerife University of La Laguna, José Juan Marrero and David Díaz, reported in 2011 that one of their students had appropriated data from their laboratory and published it as his own, with Rafael Luque as sole co-author. A court in Santa Cruz de Tenerife last year convicted Luque and the former student of committing a crime against intellectual property: “I helped him to review the article, to put it in good English and to publish it, yes. I have appealed the sentence,” Luque says.
They have a grudge against me because I am a very prolific scientist and a lot of people adore meRafael Luque, chemist
Luque stopped working at the University of Córdoba on December 1, 2022, after 15 years there. Until then, his publication signature included the Spanish institution, often accompanied by the Russian or the Saudi institutions, as well as the Jiao Tong University in Xi’an (China) as of 2019 and the University of Central Sweden since the end of 2021. In recent months, he has added the ECOTEC University in Samborondón (Ecuador) and the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria (Italy).
According to the Spanish chemist, his problems in Córdoba began when he started collaborating with King Saud University in 2019, and after signing a study “by mistake” as if he was a professor at the Russian university. The head of the Córdoba university at the time opened an investigation that ended with Luque being suspended without pay for 13 years, a sanction that was then ratified in autumn 2022 by the new university administration. EL PAÍS asked Gómez Villamandos, the current Andalusian government’s councilor for universities, about the case but did not receive a response. A spokeswoman for the University of Córdoba stressed that the sanction against Luque is for “violating aspects of incompatibility according to the rules of public personnel” and that the institution has not received any complaint about the quality of his studies.
Luque acknowledges that he skipped the established procedures to collaborate with other institutions, but attributes the sanction to envy and a lack of understanding. “They have a grudge against me because I am a very prolific scientist and a lot of people adore me, because they know my worth. They are envious and mediocre people,” he said. “I have never felt supported by the University of Córdoba, even though I put it on the Shanghai ranking. Being on the ranking is entirely due to me.”
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