The Spanish National Research Council is investigating five scientists on charges of tampering with university rankings Sciences

The Spanish National Research Council is investigating five scientists on charges of tampering with university rankings  Sciences

More than six months after El Pais newspaper exposed a Saudi plot to fraudulently raise university rankings, sources in the Spanish Ministry of Science have confirmed that the largest public institution dedicated to research in Spain has initiated disciplinary proceedings against five academics allegedly involved in the ruse. Several Saudi universities allegedly paid up to €70,000 ($75,000) a year to foreign scientists to falsely declare that their main places of work were in Saudi Arabia. This has helped Saudi institutions artificially boost their standing in global academic rankings such as the prestigious Shanghai Ranking.

According to Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC), only five registered academics may have provided false information to Clarivate’s database of the world’s most cited scientists. A CSIC spokesperson stressed the “presumption of innocence” in relation to its five investigations. One is Damia Barcelo, who incorrectly stated his primary affiliation with KSU from 2016 to 2022, while serving as Director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICRA) in Girona, Spain. Another ICRA researcher, Mira PetrovicIt said it rejected a €70,000 offer from King Saud University in 2019, in exchange for listing its primary affiliation as King Saud University in the Clarivate database used by the Shanghai Classification. Dutch scientist Jan Willem van Groenegen says he rejected a similar proposal. Barcelo denies receiving any money over the seven years when he listed a false primary affiliation in the Clarivate database.

When Rafael Luque, a chemistry professor who works at the University of Cordoba, falsely announced that his main workplace was King Saud University from 2019 to 2022, his employer fell 150 places in the Shanghai ranking, according to SIRIS, a consultancy in Barcelona. In December 2022, the University of Cordoba suspended Luke without pay for 13 years. Sources familiar with the case said that Damia Barcelo is currently under investigation by the Catalonia Anti-Fraud Office. However, Barcelo remains ICRA’s director, despite calls for him to be suspended by the centre’s 14 principal scientists.

The Shanghai Ranking is the most famous and influential ranking of universities. Shanghai Jiao Tong University evaluates academic institutions based on factors such as the number of Nobel laureates on staff and professors listed in Clarivate’s database of famous researchers. Every year, representatives of Saudi universities contact foreign researchers on this list, offering financial incentives to falsely claim affiliation with Clarivate. It appears to be the only database used for this fraudulent activity.

In 2020, Francisco Tomas Barberan, researcher and former director of CSIC’s Segura Center for Soil Science and Applied Biology, amended his profile in the Clarivate database to indicate that his primary place of employment was Taif University (near Mecca) rather than his actual employer. In Murcia, Spain. Barberan is a food technologist specializing in gut microbes and currently heads agricultural and agri-food research at an agency under the Spanish Ministry of Science.

Francisco Tomás Barberán, a food technologist at CSIC, announced that his primary workplace is a Saudi university near Mecca rather than his actual Spanish employer.SEBAS-CSIC

From 2020 to 2022, Andrés Castellanos, a physicist at CSIC, claimed his primary affiliation with King Saud University, despite working at the Materials Science Institute in Madrid. Even after his involvement in the Saudi plot was revealed, in June he was accepted as a full member of the Academia Joven de España, a Spanish organization that works to promote scientific careers among the country’s youth.

CSIC President Eloísa del Pino launched an internal case-by-case investigation in April after receiving an inquiry from EL PAÍS. CSIC’s ethics committee interviewed the five academics involved, but did not contact others who had rejected the Saudi offer and had evidence of fraud, including Mira Petrovic and Mario Estevez, a vet from the University of Extremadura.

CSIC’s preliminary investigation, which concluded a few days ago, found “indications of an alleged administrative violation that could lead to potential sanctions,” according to a spokesperson for the organization. The next step in the disciplinary proceedings involves a more in-depth investigation, although other CSIC sources said the organization does not have access to any of its employees’ banking information.

Besides Barcelo, Castellanos and Barberan, the other CSIC researchers linked to the Saudi conspiracy are Pedro Luis Rodríguez Egea, a drought expert at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Plant Biology in Valencia, who has declared his primary place of work to be King Saud University since 2017. 2020; and Roberto Fernandez Lafuente of the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry in Madrid, who announced that his primary place of work will be King Abdulaziz University from 2020 to 2021. El Pais contacted the five academics but only received a response from Barberan, who said: “I cannot comment because This is an ongoing investigation. However, CSIC was not harmed in any way.

Consulting firm SIRIS analyzed this global academic fraud in May and found that 210 famous researchers from various countries have declared Saudi universities as their main workplaces for nearly a decade. Most of them are from China (44), Spain (19), the United States (16), and Turkey (14). About 10% of Spain’s famous scientists lied about their affiliation in the 2022 database, second only to Turkey (40%) and India (12%). Juan Luis García Girao, a mathematician from the Polytechnic University of Cartagena, Spain, has been working as a facilitator for KAU for years. Records and documents obtained by EL PAÍS indicate that he convinced scientists from Spain and other countries to enter false information into the Clarivate database.

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