In exchange for huge amounts of money, researchers are altering the citation index to show the name of King Saud University instead of their own universities. This improves this Saudi university’s position on the prestigious Shanghai Ranking, a list of the world’s best universities.

It transpires that Saudi Arabia has been buying prestige from academics for many years now. As a country, it is not known for the freedoms it grants to citizens, let alone academic freedom. Dutch universities are high up in the ranking, and Wageningen is no exception (although it is considerably lower in the rankings than Erasmus University, which is among the top 100 alongside other Dutch universities like Utrecht University and the University of Groningen). This makes our country an attractive place for rich but poorly performing universities like King Saud University to ‘buy’ researchers. The Saudis approached six professors from Wageningen, but Vincenzo Fogliano was the only one to give in. The university benefited from the transaction too, because of the extra research funding it received.

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Professor penalised for fictional Saudi Arabia affiliation

Wageningen University has stripped professor Vincenzo Fogliano of his chair for two…

Wageningen University punished the professor; he will not be permitted to lead his research group for two years. The value of this punishment is open to debate: in Wageningen, Vincenzo Fogliano is free to carry on with his research, while in Spain (for example) a researcher was suspended for 13 years for a similar offence.

However, the point I want to make is a different one: my concern is about the role played by Wageningen University. Despite the university’s claim that it warned the researcher in question back in 2018, he is being allowed to continue with his work. In de Volkskrant, he even says that his university gave the green light for the ‘deal’ with King Saud University. It would seem that the situation that has arisen here has not been addressed in full.

Academic values should be upheld by both individual academics and the universities to which they are affiliated. I would like to know what role the university actually played; it was aware of what the top researcher was doing and yet did not stop him for years. If a journalist had not exposed the researcher, King Saud University could have carried on buying the prestige of research being conducted in Wageningen.

This situation also calls into doubt the value of academic lists like the Shanghai Ranking; it would seem that they do not always bring out the best in researchers and universities. Although it is good that the researcher in question has now been punished, discussions are still necessary about mechanisms in academia that encourage behaviour like this.

Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian Values. He writes a column for Erasmus Magazine every month.


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