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One of the most internationally cited scientists, Ai Koyanagi, forced to renounce her controversial contract with a Saudi university

The psychiatrist, currently employed in Spain at the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute, declared that her main place of work was King Abdulaziz University, with the aim of elevating the Arab institution in the international rankings

Ai Koyanagi
The psychiatrist Ai Koyanagi, from the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute.IRSJD

Japanese psychiatrist Ai Koyanagi is one of the world’s most frequently quoted scientists, partly because she publishes a staggering number of studies. Last year she authored 115 papers - approximately one every three days on average. Koyanagi is the co-director of the Epidemiology of Mental Disorders and Ageing group at the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute in Sant Boi de Llobregat, Barcelona, on an elite contract funded by the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA). However, in 2022 she modified her details to first appear as a researcher at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University in one of the databases used by the influential Shanghai Ranking, which annually selects the world’s top universities. Consequently, ICREA, the institution that pays Koyanagi’s salary, has obliged her to renounce her contract with the Arab university, following the revelation by EL PAÍS that Saudi Arabia is remunerating Spanish scientists to trick the Shanghai Ranking.

Koyanagi’s name appears in the Highly Cited Researchers list. This is a ranking compiled by the UK-based company Clarivate comprising the 7,000 scientists from around the world with the highest number of citations from their counterparts. Numerous academic classifications use this list to award points to institutions. The more Highly Cited Researchers at a university, the higher up it will appear in the Shanghai Ranking, which is currently topped by Harvard University (U.S.A.). Koyanagi is one of 11 researchers in Spain who have falsely claimed that their main place of work is in Arab institutions, so as to artificially bump them up in international rankings.

On Friday April 14, this newspaper contacted Emilià Pola, executive director of ICREA. On Tuesday, Pola replied by pointing out that Koyanagi “requested and obtained authorization from her center,” the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute, to sign the agreement with the Saudi university, with the institution requiring the psychiatrist to falsely change her place of work on the Highly Cited Researchers list in return for funding. “Her center of registry is private and there is full freedom to authorize researchers to accept such offers”, argues Pola. “When we learned of this situation, we contacted her and the institution, stressing that, while legal, ICREA policy does not permit this type of contract. Yesterday [Monday, April 17] the researcher renounced her contract with King Abdulaziz University”, the executive director adds. ICREA is a foundation that is funded by the Regional Government of Catalonia.

The highly prolific Ai Koyanagi has recently published studies on muscle atrophy in rats with Alzheimer’s disease, smoking in South Korean adolescents, the increased prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in individuals taking anti-epileptic drugs in Germany, and the relationship between strength of the hand and the risk of depression. In many of her research papers, Koyanagi has been accompanied by the psychiatrist Josep Maria Haro, co-director of the group at the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute, though in his case, independently of ICREA. Haro’s name also appears on the Highly Cited Researchers list and since 2017 he has been ranked as the top researcher at King Saud University in Riyadh. This newspaper has attempted to speak to both of them since April 10, but to no avail.

The chemist Mira Petrovic, currently on an ICREA-funded contract at the Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICIA) in Girona, also had an offer from King Saud University in 2019. A lecturer at the Arab institution offered to deposit €70,000 in Petrovic’s bank account if he falsely altered his place of work in the Highly Cited Researchers database. Petrovic promptly turned down what he deemed to be an “indecent” proposal.

In the case of Ai Koyanagi, King Abdulaziz University, located in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, utilized an intermediary to approach the psychiatrist and make her an offer. This was done by the mathematician Juan Luis García Guirao, professor at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena, who acknowledges that he contacted the Japanese researcher and encouraged her to modify her primary place of enrollment so as to be eligible for a collaboration project with the Arab institution. García Guirao, who was recognized as “Distinguished Scientist” of King Abdulaziz University in 2020, also intermediated with other Spanish researchers on the Highly Cited Researchers list. One of these was José Ángel Pérez, expert on food technology and a professor at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, who was registered as a researcher at the Saudi institution in 2020. García Guirao argues that he has never been paid for this and he has never set foot in King Abdulaziz University.

The 11 researchers in Spain who are listed as affiliates of Saudi universities include the chemist Damià Barceló and the physicist Andrés Castellanos, who both work at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), which belongs to the Science Ministry. A spokeswoman for Minister Diana Morant’s cabinet says that the CSIC Ethics Committee is currently reviewing the situation. “In the event of any irregularities, accountability will be determined”, she points out. “These rankings have garnered a track record of criticism regarding their validity due to the type of criteria they use and, consequently, they should not be regarded as the only references when it comes to measuring the excellence of universities around the world”, added the spokeswoman for the science minister.

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