Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Are Saudi universities buying their way into top charts?

In 2008, not a single university in Saudi Arabia ranked in the top 500 list published by the Academic Ranking of World Universities. However, in the 2011 edition of the rankings the King Saud University (KSA) jumped to the 200-to-300 bracket. A story in last week’s Science, however, suggests that a boost in scientific research may not be the main reason behind this impressive jump.

According to the feature, both King Abdelaziz University (KAU) and KSA, both in Saudi Arabia, have apparently offered lucrative contracts for professorships to internationally renowned scientists where they had to spend a few weeks in the Kingdom every year but would be required to add the university as a second affiliation to their names in the Institute for Scientific Information’s (ISI) list of highly-cited researchers.

This has helped these universities rise very quickly in international rankings and get a boost to citations, though often for research that was not even conducted in Saudi Arabia, contends the article. Critics argue that this is deterring real efforts by Saudi Arabia to boost its research and international scientific standing, but supporters argue there is nothing immoral about the activities these universities are taking. “Universities buy people’s reputations all the time. In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher,”  Gerry Gilmore, a KAU affiliate and astronomer at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, told Science.

Over 60 international academics have signed similar contracts with KAU alone. While Surender Jain, a retired mathematics professor from Ohio University in Athens and an adviser to KAU acknowledges that raising the international standing of KAU is one of the main aims of the programmes offering these contracts, they are also hopeful that the presence of such renowned international figures could help kick start research in the Kingdom.

While the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education has invested a lot of money in these programmes, there are also other efforts in the Kingdom to promote home-grown research. Perhaps the biggest of these is the founding of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which boosts some of the most advanced laboratories in the world and has attracted many prominent researchers from around the world as full-time faculty.

Do you think the KSU and KAU programme to raise their ranking is controversial or is it an acceptable method? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


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    Naglaa Shoukry said:

    I think that this is improper. Using financial incentives to attract lead scientists to your institution and to develop new research programs is normal but buying your name on research that was not even performed there is unacceptable. Unfortunately, with the declining funding for research elsewhere, this possibility becomes tempting to many investigators.

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    farid elasmer said:

    in general there is no harm done by recruiting an eminent scientist to any university. The only thing do native citizens are realy willing to learn and work hard to do their real job

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    Kenneth Moore said:

    I think it would be wonderful if Saudi Arabia didn’t have to buy names to increase their scientific clout. And that is, ultimately, what they seem to be aiming for—this isn’t their only tactic, as I said when I blogged about this last month and as Mohammed mentioned about KAUST. As long as the Saudi students get even a smidge of world-class scientific instruction from these researchers, I’d say the effort was a success—it really depends on whether the researchers take this seriously or are just in it for the dollars.