Saudi scientist tells colleagues, ‘Stop this academic fraud’

Sakhr Alhuthali reveals how foreign researchers are paid by universities to lie about their main affiliation and boost their position on the influential Shanghai Ranking

Sakhr Alhuthali
The chemical engineer Sakhr Alhuthali, of King Abdulaziz University, in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia).
Manuel Ansede

Saudi chemical engineer Sakhr Alhuthali bitterly read the news that academic institutions in his country pay Spanish scientists to boost their rankings among the best universities in the world. But he already knew all about it. After reading the article in the English edition of EL PAÍS, Alhuthali, a researcher at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), told this newspaper how it all works because he believes this fraudulent practice harms the reputations of honest Saudi academics and citizens. “For some Arab universities, an academic collaboration means privately paying a foreign scientist to declare falsely that his primary place of work is that university,” Alhuthali explains by videoconference.

A key element in this academic fraud is Clarivate’s prestigious Highly Cited Researchers list, which ranks the 7,000 researchers whose studies are most often cited by other academics. An institution with more staff on the Clarivate list will be ranked higher on the influential Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking. Our investigation revealed that Saudi Arabia’s two oldest universities – King Abdulaziz University and King Saud University – pay up to €70,000 ($77,000) a year for highly cited researchers to list them in the Clarivate database as their primary academic affiliation even though they are employed by other institutions. This subterfuge has helped the two Saudi universities to rise in the rankings and make it into the top 150 in the world. “We must be united to stop this most disturbing academic buffoonery,” said the 34-year-old Alhuthali, a native of Jeddah.

A new report by the SIRIS Academic consulting firm reveals the extent of this deceptive practice. For the last decade, 210 highly cited researchers from other countries have listed Saudi universities as their primary institutional affiliation. Most of them are from China (44), Spain (19), the United States (16), Turkey (14), India (13), the United Kingdom (12), Italy (11) and Germany (11). Spanish academics are among the most corrupt in both absolute and relative numbers. Our analysis of the 2022 Clarivate list found that approximately 10% of highly cited researchers in Spain lie about their primary institutional affiliation. We corroborated this finding by speaking with the individuals and their employers. The SIRIS Academic analysis, led by Swiss consultant Yoran Beldengrün, found that the percentage of cheaters (in relative terms, compared to the total number of highly cited researchers in the country) is especially high in Turkey (40%) and India (12%).

A fair international collaboration is based on sharing knowledge, not affiliations
Saudi chemical engineer Sakhr Alhuthali

Sakhr Alhuthali told us that the Saudi money is often conditioned upon listing Arab academics as co-authors who do little, if anything, in the highly cited researchers’ research. Alhuthali’s main line of research is biopharmaceutical development using Chinese hamster ovary cells. On January 31, Alhuthali received a message from one of the 11 scientists in Spain who misrepresent their affiliations in the Clarivate database. He is an environmental expert employed by a Spanish institution who lists King Abdulaziz University as his primary affiliation.

“Dear Professor Sakhr Alhuthali, you has been nominated as my research collaborator in KAU, we must put in contact [sic] to coordinate. I can help you in your work and I can also include you in several lines of my lab research. Please make me a brief response and tell to my your opinion and ideas about our collaboration. I can include you in several manuscripts,” wrote the researcher from the Spanish institution.

Alhuthali, who also does research at Imperial College London, immediately rejected the offer, shocked to see that his own Saudi university was encouraging him to “work with random academics to get me free authorship.” He immediately forwarded the message to other senior King Abdulaziz professors. “This is not mutual collaboration – it’s unethical. Is this how I am supposed to get promoted?” said Alhuthali, comparing this collaboration approach to “arranged Middle Eastern marriages.”

King Abdulaziz University offers $4,000 a month to foreign scientists to lie in the Clarivate database, according to documents we reviewed. In addition, the Saudi institution will pay the Article Processing Charges of four studies ($2,000-$10,000 each) in top-level journals if a non-contributing Saudi academic is included as a co-author. “It became more of a Souq, not scientific knowledge,” said Alhuthali.

It’s a shame that scientists are accepting these offers
Jan-Willem van Groenigen, a scientist who turned down a €70,000 offer

Dutch scientist Jan-Willem van Groenigen confirmed that King Saud University offers even more money. On October 28, 2019, he received a message from a professor at the Saudi institution who offered him “an annual salary of $70,000” for lying in the Clarivate database. “I never bothered to respond,” he said. “It is a disgrace if scientists accept such an offer, and extremely disreputable and unfair to the institute or university where they are employed,” said van Groenigen, an expert in soil science at Wageningen University (Netherlands). His colleague, Ken Giller, says he also turned down a similar offer.

The fraud is highlighted in the Clarivate data. Seventy-seven percent of the highly cited researchers who list a Saudi university as their primary place of work also include a secondary affiliation in another country that is usually their actual employer. In other countries, only 10% of the highly cited researchers report a foreign secondary affiliation. The SIRIS Academic report reveals that the share of foreign second affiliations is especially high for King Abdulaziz University (81%) and King Saud University (82%).

Alhuthali is blunt: “If Saudi universities want to attract highly cited researchers, then they should do everything possible to let them move – like [Portuguese] footballer Cristiano Ronaldo – not to take advantages of some of their papers remotely.” But he says collaboration with Saudi Arabia should be done the right way. “A fair international collaboration is based on sharing knowledge, not affiliations,” he said.

Alhuthali believes his country is trying to become “a better place” and is fighting corruption. He mentions the dismissal last October of King Abdulaziz University’s president for embezzling over $133 million. Alhuthali told us he spent 13 years studying and working in British and French research institutions with grants from the Saudi government. “I don’t need to pay anyone to include me in random studies,” he said.

Physicist Humberto Bustince, a computer science and AI professor at the Public University of Navarre (Spain), readily admits to falsely stating in 2018 that his primary place of work was King Abdulaziz University, even though he never set foot in Saudi Arabia. Bustince claims the €70,000 contract was managed by his university’s office for research sharing, which required him to lie in the Clarivate database. “They demanded it and I didn’t pay much attention because I thought it was some internal Clarivate thing that was needed for the contract,” he said. Bustince says he was unaware that it negatively affected his own university’s academic rankings. “It was a mistake,” he admits.

Alhuthali believes this artificial boosting of academic rankings “is driving back Saudi universities, not ahead,” and wrote about the problem in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. In his article, Alhuthali decries how foreign researchers get most of the funding and conduct most of their experiments outside Saudi Arabia. Unscrupulous but highly cited researchers can get paid €70,000 a year just to say they work for a Saudi university that they’ve never visited, while a young local PhD student barely earns about €450 a month, with no research facilities. “They only ask us to teach – research is optional,” said Alhuthali.

The Saudi scientist told us about a promising 2013 study on Chinese hamster ovary cells, led by Jun Wang, a scientist affiliated with Chinese company BGI and King Abdulaziz University. That article led him to similar research that was apparently being conducted in Saudi Arabia. Since he was interested in this line of research, he decided it would be the focus of his doctoral program. But he later learned that those experiments were being done outside Saudi Arabia. “I was misled to choose a PhD topic based on many papers affiliated to King Abdulaziz University and I currently struggle to find local people to collaborate with in my field,” he said.

Sakhr Alhuthali dreams of opportunities to do top-notch science in his country. “The Saudi Arabian people are not aware of this unscrupulous scheme. I hope that publicizing it will shake up Saudi news media and the public, and that things will change.”

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