How to boost your university up the rankings

The recent publication by Thomson Reuters of the list of Highly Cited Researchers and their institutions provides data much more interesting than simply knowing who are the most cited and which institutions hire them.

By providing data on secondary affiliations, the list inadvertently confirms the traffic in institutional affiliations used to boost institutions’ places in world university rankings.

Let us look more closely at the data…

The Highly Cited Researchers, or HCR, list contains 3,215 researchers. Of these, only 702 – about 22% – have more than one affiliation, as registered by them in their papers. Such a practice is normal since one can put more than one address in a paper (department, affiliated hospital, research centre etc).

In these cases, however, one would expect that this secondary address would, most often, be in the same country as the first address. HCR data shows that of these 702 researchers, 42% have a foreign country as their second address.

The distribution of the 3,215 on the HCR list shows that Saudi Arabia has 139 (82%) of ‘its’ 170 ‘researchers’ in the HCR list having that country as a second, not a first, address and only 31 have Saudi Arabia as first address (see Table 1).

By contrast, most researchers – that is, more than 90% – from highly developed countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada have their first address in their country, as expected.

Far behind Saudi Arabia, scientific powerhouses such as the US and UK have only 37 and 23 HCR indicating those countries as a foreign address on their paper.

Attractive institutions

Another interesting piece of data (see Table 2) is the frequency of the institutions coming up in the ‘secondary addresses’ used by the 702 researchers on the HCR list having more than one address on their papers (we are focusing only on institutions which appear at least 10 times in the secondary address). We see again that the most ‘attractive’ institution as a foreign second address is by far King Abdulaziz University, or KAU, in Saudi Arabia.

All these data certainly suggest that this particular institution has found a cheap way to be considered ‘excellent’ in world university rankings.

But the same data also suggests that some highly cited researchers may have found an easy way to get more money in exchange for transferring some ‘symbolic capital’ to a university other than the one that hires them full-time.

As Table 3 shows, nearly half of the researchers who have a foreign second address are in fact associated with Saudi Arabia.

For HCR from the US and China, the figures are even more than half. One might have expected a less concentrated distribution over many more institutions around the world.

We leave it to the reader to ponder the meaning of these tendencies, but they surely raise important questions about research ethics in a world based more and more on simplistic evaluations of the ‘quality’ of research and researchers.

* Yves Gingras is a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST) and scientific director at l'Observatoire des sciences et des technologies (OST-UQAM), Canada. Email: