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How to inflate résumés and influence people

List of world's most cited researchers removes 550 names suspected of inflating the impact ratings of their articles

John Swope / Getty ImagesClarivate Analytics, the company that operates the Web of Science (WoS) database, released its annual list of Highly Cited Researchers in November, recognizing 6,938 scientists whose most recent work has had a significant impact and influence in their fields. This year’s list was notable for the record number of authors excluded for artificially inflating their performance, with a total of 550 names disqualified and removed from the final list. In 2021, just over 300 researchers were excluded.

Clarivate’s list of highly cited authors has become something of an exclusive club in high-impact science. It is based on the top 1% of articles published in 21 fields over the preceding 10 years. Over time, the company has developed a series of filters to prevent researchers from manipulating their academic performance in an attempt to earn a place on the list. In 2019, for example, it began excluding scientists whose highly cited articles were too often produced by large collaborative research networks—it is not unusual for papers to have more than a thousand authors (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 289). The decision was based on the fact that the individual contribution of each author is likely to be very small and does not reflect genuine influence in their community. Similarly, academics with unusually high levels of self-citation (where authors cite their own studies in the bibliography of a new article) or those being investigated for misconduct in their institutions and countries are also removed.

This year, Clarivate adopted a new criterion, leading to a record number of names being excluded from the list. The company partnered with the Retraction Watch website, which keeps records on thousands of retracted scientific articles. By analyzing these papers—retracted due to errors or misconduct—Clarivate was able to exhaustively determine the legitimacy of the scientific output of potential candidates for the list. Researchers were excluded due to the existence of one or more papers retracted for plagiarism, fraud, or falsification, even if they were not among the author’s most cited work. The names of those removed from the list were not revealed.

David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), believes that in the coming years, up to 10% of highly cited candidates could be disqualified for ethical reasons or suspicious behavior. “This year our selection process has been more in-depth than ever, in an effort to navigate increasing levels of research misconduct in the academic community,” Pendlebury said in a press release.

The company is adopting increasingly rigorous criteria to avoid embarrassments like the scandal involving Bharat Aggarwal, from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, USA. In 2015, Aggarwal appeared on another list of highly cited researchers, this one compiled by Thomson Reuters, the company that preceded Clarivate, which named him as one of the “world’s most influential scientific minds” in the field of toxicology. In the same year, however, seven of his articles were retracted simultaneously by the journal Biochemical Pharmacology for image manipulation—altogether, the retracted articles had been cited more than 500 times. After an investigation, he left the oncology research institution.

The most infamous example, however, is biophysicist Kuo-Chen Chou, director of the Gordon Life Science Institute in Boston and former editor of the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB), which was published by Elsevier. He was on the highly cited researchers list every year between 2014 and 2018. In 2019, he was removed from his position as JTB editor after the journal found that he asked the authors of hundreds of scientific papers he reviewed to cite many of his own papers and to mention an algorithm he had developed. Chou had published 168 articles by 2003—most in the field of computational biology—which together had been cited nearly 2,000 times. By 2020, he had published 602 articles that had received 58,000 citations. According to the JTB investigation, he sometimes reviewed articles under a pseudonym or chose reviewers from his own institution. There were also times that he added himself as a coauthor of articles he was editing that were already in the final stage of the peer-review process.

Other potential signs of misconduct monitored by Clarivate include the publication of an unusually high number of articles. “Any author publishing two or three papers per week strains our understanding of the normative standards of authorship and credit,” said ISI director Gali Halevi in an interview with Retraction Watch. According to her, scientists are using increasingly sophisticated methods to circumvent the rules, motivated by the rewards of making the list. “Respect, promotion, recruitment and financial bonus rewards are all commonplace. Institutional pressure is high to enter or remain on the list. Unfortunately, this results in a very small number of researchers using more ingenious gaming methods every year in order to be included.”

As an example of this type of pressure, Halevi mentions the criteria adopted by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), a respected annual list produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, since 2008. She highlights that the presence of Highly Cited Researchers on a university’s staff can influence its final ARWU score by up to 20%. Furthermore, Highly Cited Researchers often receive offers from foreign universities to become affiliated researchers without having to leave their current institutions, with the aim of improving the affiliated institution’s position on the ARWU. Clarivate now treats these researchers as “associates” and does not include them in the scores for the institutions where they have a second job.