The U.S. News and World Report rankings have long been regarded as the Bible of university reputation metrics.
But when the outlet released its first global rankings in October, many were surprised. UC Berkeley, which typically hovers in the twenties in the national pecking order, shot to third in the international arena. The university also placed highly in several subjects, including first place in math.
Even more surprising, though, was that a little-known university in Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz University, or KAU, ranked seventh in the world in mathematics — despite the fact that it didn’t have a doctorate program in math until two years ago.
“I thought this was really bizarre,” said UC Berkeley math professor Lior Pachter. “I had never heard of this university and never heard of it in the context of mathematics.”
As he usually does when rankings are released, Pachter received a round of self-congratulatory emails from fellow faculty members. He, too, was pleased that his math department had ranked first. But he was also surprised that his school had edged out other universities with reputable math departments, such as MIT, which did not even make the top 10.
For the sake of ranking
Citations are an indicator of academic clout, but they are also a crucial metric used in compiling several university rankings.
It was enough to inspire Pachter to conduct his own review of the newly minted rankings. His inquiry revealed that KAU had aggressively recruited professors from a list of top scientists with the most frequently referenced papers, often referred to as highly cited researchers.
“The more I’ve learned, the more shocked and disgusted I’ve been,” Pachter said.
Citations are an indicator of academic clout, but they are also a crucial metric used in compiling several university rankings. There may be many reasons for hiring highly cited researchers, but rankings are one clear result of KAU’s investment. The worry, some researchers have said, is that citations and, ultimately, rankings may be KAU’s primary aim. KAU did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone and email for this article.
On Halloween, Pachter published his findings about KAU’s so-called “highly-cited researcher program” in a post on his blog. It elicited many responses from his colleagues in the comment section, some of whom had experience working with KAU.
UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen also contacted Pachter. Almost a year ago, Eisen had been solicited by KAU but ultimately declined the offer.
Most researchers, such as Eisen, were initially contacted by KAU via email and asked if they would like to join the university’s faculty as a “distinguished adjunct professor.” Eisen traded emails with several people at KAU, trying to figure out what the catch was.
“I tried to get them to explain what they were trying to do,” Eisen said. “It smelled really off.”
KAU offered him $72,000 per year and free business-class airfare and five-star hotel stays for him to visit KAU in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, according to an email sent to Eisen by KAU. In exchange, Eisen was told he would be expected to work on collaborations with KAU local researchers and also update his Thomson Reuters’ highly cited researcher listing to include a KAU affiliation. He would also be expected to occasionally publish some scientific journal articles with the Saudi university’s name attached.
Other former and current KAU adjuncts reported being contacted in the same way and offered similar contracts.
“I’ve been offered money to be a visiting scientist somewhere and even done that occasionally,” Eisen said. “But they don’t come out and say, ‘We want to list your name as one of our faculty members.’ ”
In 2011, Science magazine published an article titled “Saudi Universities Offer Cash in Exchange for Academic Prestige,” questioning KAU’s efforts to enhance its international standing through this program.
In response, Adnan Zahed, KAU’s vice president for graduate studies, submitted a letter to the magazine, defending the program.
“KAU is definitely not buying research publications for the sake of ranking,” Zahed said in the letter. “KAU would never sacrifice its reputation in order to obtain false rewards; neither would the elite scientists collaborating with the institution accept such an unethical proposition.”
On its website, KAU says the goal of hiring widely published professors is to “encourage and enhance its multidisciplinary research programs” and “initiate strong collaborations with other leading institutions around the globe.” The program was piloted in spring 2010 in the math department and was later extended to other disciplines.
About 130 researchers — spanning the globe from Hong Kong to the Netherlands to the United States — list KAU as a secondary affiliation on Thomson Reuters’ highly cited researcher database. That figure is four times higher than that of Harvard University, which has the next highest number of secondary affiliations: 32.
Four UC Berkeley researchers list KAU affiliations, but only two have active adjunct professorships with the university: plant and microbial biology professor Chris Somerville and mechanical engineering professor Xiang Zhang.
Somerville, a highly cited researcher, began his adjunct professorship with KAU early this year. Since then, he said he has helped KAU researchers with a grant proposal. He was supposed to travel to KAU earlier this year but said that, for one reason or another, it never worked out.
When asked what he would do if it turned out that KAU had hired him only for his citations, Somerville said he had “started wondering about it” but was not sure.
Zhang declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to “spoil” his newly formed relationship with KAU.
Other former KAU adjuncts report similar experiences to Somerville’s. They communicated with KAU researchers and drafted proposals, and many never heard back. Those former adjuncts view the program as an honest effort to establish international research collaborations, but one that ultimately fails in practice.
Maarten Chrispeels, a professor emeritus at UCSD, was an adjunct professor at KAU for just one year. While under contract, he traveled to Saudi Arabia and submitted a research proposal for KAU researchers to sequence the genome of desert plants. But he never received a response from KAU about the proposal.
Chrispeels said his contract was terminated at the end of the year. He believes that KAU was only interested in hiring him because of his ranking on the 2001 highly cited researcher list and that they may have terminated the contract after realizing he was no longer publishing out of his UCSD lab.
“The program was OK, but from that point of view, this is not the way you go about developing science in a developing country,” Chrispeels said. “It’s my feeling that it is the way you raise your numbers.”
But Manolis Dermitzakis, an active KAU adjunct professor and University of Geneva Medical School professor, believes KAU has started terminating contracts of adjunct professors not because researchers haven’t appended enough KAU affiliations to their articles but rather because they are not visiting the university frequently enough or have not helped write grants.
He does agree, though, that KAU has not approached the recruitment of adjuncts in the best way.
“The key problem is that the way the Saudis have approached people was not elegant,” Dermitzakis said in an email. “To me this is mainly a problem of them not fully understanding how the scientific community works due to isolation.”
Beyond the metrics
“KAU would never sacrifice its reputation in order to obtain false rewards; neither would the elite scientists collaborating with the institution accept such an unethical proposition.”
— Adnan Zahed, KAU’s vice president for graduate studies
In addition to its seventh-place math ranking in the new U.S. News and World Report global ranking, KAU also ranked 10th in math in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU. Back in 2012, it placed in the 51st-through-75th range in math.
In rankings that rely heavily on a university’s number of highly cited researchers, such as the ARWU and the U.S. News and World Report Global University Rankings, KAU places highly.
In the U.S. News and World Report international rankings, 75 percent of the indicators considered have to do with bibliometric indicators — which include the number of publications and citations, how impactful those citations are and the proportion of papers that feature co-authors from different countries — all of which favor universities with highly cited professors. The other 25 percent is based on reputation.
Other criteria used in U.S. News and World Report’s National University Rankings — such as student retention rates, selectivity and faculty resources — often are not available for international universities. So the outlet had to work with what it had, said Robert Morse, chief data strategist for the U.S. News and World Report.
Morse said the goal of these global university rankings was to measure the “research mission of the university.”
Pachter said UC Berkeley’s math department itself benefited from a large number of highly cited researchers. The school, he said, has a robust applied-mathematics team — one of the most widely referenced specialties in the field. Some of the most respected professors, however, have few citations, Pachter said.
He said that capturing what makes a university “good” goes beyond the numbers.
“In math, it has a lot to do with the individuals who are in the departments,” Pachter said. “Many faculty at Berkeley have, at some point in their careers, proved famous theorems. Work that’s very deep — that’s the word we use in math — is respected and appreciated.”