Saudi Arabia pays Spanish scientists to pump up global university rankings

More than a dozen academics in Spain falsely claim primary affiliations with Arab institutions to boost their academic prestige

Awards ceremony for students from King Saud University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 1, 2021.AEC
Manuel Ansede

Mira Petrovic is a Spanish chemist and one of the most oft-cited scientists in the world. She is still stunned by a Saudi university’s offer just before the pandemic: €70,000 ($77,000) a year just to list King Saud University in Riyadh as her primary academic affiliation in a database used by the influential Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking. Petrovic, who works at the Catalan Institute for Water Research in Girona (northeast Spain), would only have to make a few three-day trips to Saudi Arabia every year. She immediately declined the unseemly offer, unlike dozens of other reputable academics around the world who list Saudi universities as their primary affiliations. These obviously false claims of association artificially pump up Arab institutions in international academic rankings. The main abusers of the system are from China and Spain, with 12 and 11 academics, respectively.

The Shanghai Ranking is the most prestigious annual publication of world university rankings. Every year, institutions vie to climb the ladder, which can translate into political influence and higher tuition fees. Currently, the institution ranked number one is Harvard University in the United States. Some criteria for a higher ranking are the number of Nobel laureates on staff and the number of professors on the Highly Cited Researchers list (the top 1% by citations for a field) compiled by Clarivate, a British-American analytics company. Saudi universities offer easy money to these highly cited researchers to change their primary institutional affiliation, but the ruse can be detected by analyzing Clarivate’s data because the Spanish scientists continue to sign their research papers with their Spanish academic affiliations.

In 2019, Spanish chemist Rafael Luque accepted a Saudi offer and changed his primary affiliation to King Saud University without informing his real employer, the University of Córdoba (Spain). EL PAÍS reported that the Spanish university penalized Luque with a de facto dismissal of 13 years without pay. The University of Córdoba plummeted 150 positions in the Shanghai Ranking because of Luque’s subterfuge, according to a detailed report by the SIRIS consulting firm obtained by EL PAÍS. If Luque had not falsely changed his affiliation to the Saudi institution, the University of Cordoba would be 684th on the Shanghai Ranking instead of the 837th.

Damià Barceló, ICRA Director, His Highness Prince Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, Prince of the Royal Family and Governor of the City of Riyadh and Naif Abdullah Al-Harbi, Director of the Addiriyah Chair of Environmental Studies at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Chemist Damià Barceló with Saudi Prince Ahmed Bin Khaled Bin Abdullah Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (center) and Professor Naif Abdullah Al-Harbi, King Saud University, Riyadh; 2011. ICRA

Chemist Damià Barceló was one of the first Spanish researchers to accept a Saudi offer and has listed King Saud University as his primary affiliation since 2016, despite his principal job as director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research. Barceló says he made the change because he was interested in analyzing contaminants in crops irrigated with wastewater in Saudi Arabia. “To conduct this study, I had to list King Saud University as my primary affiliation. It was an essential condition — without affiliation, I could not collect samples in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Barceló is one of Spain’s most prolific scientists and has signed over 1,600 studies in his professional career. Some years, he published a paper every three days. Publication quality is important for making the Highly Cited Researchers list, but quantity also plays a major role. In 2013, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz personally presented Barceló with a 500,000-riyal ($133,300) award for his research on water pollutants.

Despite being formally affiliated with King Saud University, Barceló acknowledges that he only goes to Saudi Arabia once a year to collect samples and give lectures. Barceló denies getting paid €70,000 per year as reported by other scientists, but would not reveal the terms of his contract other than saying the university covers the cost of his “very expensive” experiments, luxury hotel accommodations, first class travel and a lecture fee €2,000 ($2,200).

Damià Barceló, director of ICRA, has been awarded the prestigious Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Water Prize of Saudi Arabia, which is awarded every two years
Damià Barceló, director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research, receives an award in 2013 from the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. ICRA

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state that executes dozens of people every year, often by crucifixion or public beheadings. At King Saud and King Abdulaziz universities, women are usually covered with a black niqab, the face veil worn by fundamentalist Muslim women. Barceló says he has given lectures in a room full of men, with female students watching on a screen in another room.

Dozens of the world’s most cited scientists have rebuffed offers from Saudi universities, including Mira Petrovic, who openly talks about turning down an annual €70,000 stipend. Two other Spanish academics on the Highly Cited Researchers list agreed to talk anonymously about their experiences. Not all offers are the same. One said a Saudi professor offered him $4,000 a month in a one-on-one videoconference. “They were doubling my salary,” he said. The other researcher said he received a message from an intermediary at a Spanish university, who passed on a ludicrous offer from King Abdulaziz University: €11,000 ($12,000) a year in funding for a collaborative study with the outrageous condition that the research papers had to include Saudi co-authors who wouldn’t actually contribute anything.

Yoran Beldengrün, who co-authored the SIRIS report, notes the lack of strings attached to the Saudi payments. “Some scientists used the money to buy a microscope and others to buy houses on the Costa Brava (in Spain),” he said. His Barcelona-based consultancy advises universities around the world. When Beldengrün and his colleagues read about the Rafael Luque sanctions in EL PAÍS, they decided to dig deeper. “As far as we know, this is the first time a university has made a decision like this [to suspend the researcher’s employment and salary],” states the SIRIS report. “It will probably have an enormous impact in Spain and worldwide, forcing universities to re-evaluate the rights and obligations of their academic staff.”

The SIRIS report shows that Saudi Arabia boasts 112 of the Highly Cited Researchers, which is five times more than Germany. Luis Martínez, a professor of computer languages and systems at the University of Jaén (Spain), says he made the Highly Cited Researchers list in 2017 and immediately started receiving offers from Arab universities. He turned them down for five years, but when he failed to get Spanish public funding for his projects, he accepted €60,000 ($66,000) per year from King Saud University to list it as his primary institutional affiliation.

Luis Martínez, professor at the University of Jaén
Luis Martínez, professor, University of Jaén (Spain). UJA

SIRIS believes that the University of Jaén will fall about 150 places in the Shanghai Ranking because of Martínez’s move. “This time I had to say yes to survive,” said Martínez, after refusing for five years.

Gustavo Reyes, vice rector of the University of Jaén, said: “We found out when the Clarivate list came out and saw that Luis Martínez was affiliated with the Saudi university. We immediately called him to a meeting with the rector and spent an entire morning explaining why he couldn’t do this. We told him it was unethical and that he is a full-time professor with an exclusivity provision.” Article 83 of the Spain’s Organic Law of Universities regulates collaborations with other entities, but Reyes claims that King Saud University doesn’t follow the normal procedure and signed a contract directly with Martínez to change his affiliation in the Clarivate list. The University of Jaén is considering “legal action” against its own professor.

Domingo Docampo is a mathematician who is well versed in how the Shanghai Ranking works. When he was rector of the University of Vigo (Spain), Docampo observed the widespread obsession with academic rankings and decided to “unlock its secret.” Ten years ago, Docampo exposed the Shanghai Ranking methodology used by its creators at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China). Docampo urges Spanish institutions to “stop turning a blind eye” to Saudi Arabia’s “corrupt practices.”

“Arab universities buy people off for chump change, but for some academics it’s enough money to sacrifice their integrity,” said Docampo. “Sadly, this is happening most often in Spain. We have 11 cases while China has 12, but their population is 30 times our size. There’s no comparison.” United Kingdom and Italy have six cases, Germany has five and France has none.

Physicist Andrés Castellanos, in his laboratory at the Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales in Madrid
Physicist Andrés Castellanos, in his laboratory at the Materials Science Institute of Madrid. CSIC

Andrés Castellanos is a physicist who won Spain’s National Research Award for Young People six months ago for his promising research on atom-thick materials. The Ministry of Science’s notice about the award indicated Castellanos is a researcher at the Materials Science Institute of Madrid, but in 2020, Castellanos changed his primary affiliation to King Saud University on the Clarivate list. “It was a condition for a visiting fellowship with a collaborative project,” said Castellanos. “It was a good opportunity to obtain more resources for my research group.” For the past three years, his primary affiliation has been listed as King Saud University.

Andrés Castellanos and Damià Barceló both belong to Spain’s largest scientific organization, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC in Spanish). Three other CSIC members list a Saudi university as their primary academic affiliation. After EL PAÍS inquired about this practice, the CSIC launched a case-by-case internal investigation.

Saudi universities sometimes use Spanish intermediaries to convey their offers. Juan Luis García Guirao, who was once Spain’s youngest professor, has contacted several people on the Highly Cited Researchers list, urging them to switch their primary affiliations in exchange for Arab funding. García, who is employed by the Polytechnic University of Cartagena (Spain), was named a King Abdulaziz “Distinguished Scientist” in 2020. “I have never been paid — my relationship with them is strictly scientific. In fact, I have never traveled to Saudi Arabia or set foot in King Abdulaziz University,” said García.

García acknowledges he contacted Ai Koyanagi, a Japanese psychiatrist who studies mental disorders at the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute in Barcelona. Koyanagi listed King Abdulaziz University as her primary affiliation in 2022, and ICREA, the public foundation that pays her salary, as a secondary affiliation. The psychiatrist published 115 studies last year, almost one every three days. Many of her papers are co-signed by Josep Maria Haro, chief scientist at the Sant Joan de Déu Heath Park, who has listed King Saud University as his primary affiliation since 2017.

José Ángel Pérez, professor at the Miguel Hernández University (UMH) of Elche, giving a lecture
Professor José Ángel Pérez, from the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, during a 2019 lecture in Valencia (Spain). UMH

José Ángel Pérez, an expert in date cultivation and a professor at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (Spain), says that Juan Luis García Guirao contacted him at the height of the pandemic in 2020. The Saudi offer conveyed by García required Pérez to put King Abdulaziz University as his primary affiliation on the Clarivate list. Despite his reservations, Pérez complied. In return, he was named a “Distinguished Affiliate Professor” for a year. “I didn’t get paid for that — it was honorary. If others got paid, I guess I’m the sucker.” Pérez knows his decision affected his real employer’s position in the academic rankings. “I’ll always regret this and have apologized to my university,” he said.

However, Jordi Sardans blames the Spanish scientific system for forcing him to affiliate falsely with King Abdulaziz University. According to his website, Sardans has “a doctorate in biology, two master’s degrees in terrestrial ecology and chemical analysis, and two bachelor’s degrees in pharmacy and chemistry.” He has published over 110 studies, including many in prestigious journals like Nature, where a recent paper of his warned about abrupt changes in ecosystems caused by climate change. However, Sardans says that for seven years he had to juggle a part-time job as a high school teacher with a full-time job at the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (affiliate with the Autonomous University of Barcelona). “My contract has no exclusivity provision. I’m free to work for anyone and the Spanish government hasn’t given me anything. I’m doing top-flight science and my wallet is empty. So, if I can earn a few bucks because I’m on the Clarivate list and opportunities come my way, then I feel morally justified in accepting them,” he said.

The other four academics working in Spain and affiliated with Saudi universities in 2022 are marine ecologist Ángel Borja (Basque technology center AZTI); food expert Francesca Giampieri (European Atlantic University in Santander); and Rubén Domínguez and Mirian Pateiro, two researchers from a publicly funded institution in Galicia (Centro Tecnolóxico da Carne). AZTI confirmed that it authorized Ángel Borja’s agreement with King Abdulaziz University. Giampieri is an Italian citizen who only said she has collaborated with many universities around the world and ended her association with King Abdulaziz University in 2022, as did Borja. Our attempts to contact the two researchers with the Centro Tecnolóxico da Carne were unsuccessful. Since 2014, 19 scientists in Spain have been affiliated with a Saudi university at some point.

The Shanghai Ranking methodology also considers the number of studies published in two prestigious scientific journals: Nature and Science. Agricultural engineer Blanca Landa, from the CSIC’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Córdoba (Spain) claims to have proof that Saudi Arabia tries to skew that factor as well. In November 2022, Landa received a message from a professor at King Saud University: “I would like you to include me in studies you are going to publish in Nature or other top journals... I can offer you $1,500 for each published study [listing me as a co-author] and invite you here as a visiting professor with all expenses paid.” Landa immediately replied, “I am not at all interested and don’t contact me again.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS