One of these things is not like the others
November 12, 2014 11:49 PM   Subscribe

US News and World Report (USNWR) ranking of the top ten universities in mathematics are: 1. Berkeley ; 2. Stanford ; 3. Princeton ; 4. UCLA ; 5. University of Oxford ; 6. Harvard ; 7. King Abdulaziz University ; 8. Pierre and Marie Curie – Paris 6 ; 9. University of Hong Kong ; 10. University of Cambridge

Article summarizing the original 2011 Science article (paywalled) which exposed the Saudi cash-for-citations system. The blog comments are worth reading.
posted by benzenedream (26 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm astonished that the technique is so effective. $72,000 per academic per year, and their maths department is ranked (on paper) more highly than MIT! In fact, TFA says
in "normalized citation impact" KAU's math department is the top ranked in the world[....] KAU employs (as adjunct faculty) more than a quarter of the highly cited mathematicians at Thomson Reuters. [emphases in the original]
Seriously, the cost is negligible compared to the impact, If they'd been a bit more restrained, and come in at (say) number thirty, would anyone have really cared?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:22 AM on November 13, 2014


I think it is $72,000 per adjunct professor, but the point still stands!
posted by mangasm at 1:31 AM on November 13, 2014


Agree, seems astonishingly cheap.

Knowing how conscious university administrators in the west are about their rankings and citation metrics, I wonder how many are looking at KAU for inspiration? Or, indeed, are they already doing this? Not that it is necessarily nefarious, of course: the esteemed adjuncts did have to spend a small but non-trivial part of their year working in the department and collaborating with the full-time staff.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:16 AM on November 13, 2014


There isn't a university in the world which isn't doing all it can to game the various league tables and rankings for UG education, MBAs, PhDs, student satisfaction, student experience, research income, research outputs, citations, h indexes, etc etc. The real question here: what is the value of all of these rankings? What is their use? Specific to this, why should we be bothered about how spending money in this way has changed this table? How is it more reprehensible than all the other gaming that goes on? Is it because its new and the established institutes can't do the same thing?
posted by biffa at 2:20 AM on November 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


I don't see anyone here saying that it's reprehensible. I think it's amusingly clumsy, myself: they broke the metric and so they've wasted their money. If anything, it's a bit sad: the same amount of money could have been spent on actual professors and grad students, and eventually the department might have become genuinely well-regarded.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:36 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


The citation system itself is pretty fundamentally broken; I guess this has the virtues of a) being really obvious and b) funneling money directly to the researchers rather than reserving the profits for the publishers, so there is that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:40 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


I agree that it's part of a wider systemic problem, but it's a kind of academic fraud. By claiming institutional ownership over the publications of these dubiously "adjunct" staff, KAU is pretending to have a much more robust research culture than it really does. And, if Pachter is correct, the USNWR doesn't distinguish between papers written before the KAU "affiliation" came into play and after, so KAU is able to purchase all of their adjuncts' research for citation purposes, which just seems incredibly weird. Considering that so much in academia these days is decided by metrics, it's understandable that academics are going to be disturbed by a university gaming those metrics in such an obvious way.
Agree, seems astonishingly cheap.
I'm not sure how cheap it is really. In one of the comments, Pachter suggests that KAU has spent US$100 million on this scheme so far. As Joe in Australia points out above, $100 million would go a long way to improve genuine research culture if used on things like faculty hires, postgraduate scholarships, and plant.

The other point to make is that these adjuncts get paid much more for flying in occasionally and staying at 5* hotels than the actual research staff in the department. This is something pointed out by KAU surgery professor Mohamad Bakhotmah in the comment at the bottom of the page. He sounds genuinely angry about how his university is choosing to allocate its money. It positions Saudi Arabia -- still -- as a site of resource extraction and neo-colonialism. Rich and privileged academics from the first world are getting flown in and given the royal treatment while the actual staff in the departments they're supposedly attached to are underpaid and poorly resourced. And those same internal academics have no say in the governance of their university as there are no democratic mechanisms to represent their concerns. There are real, basic social justice issues involved here, and that's not even getting into the question of gender representation and teaching that Pachter foregrounds in his blog post.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:37 AM on November 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


And, if Pachter is correct, the USNWR doesn't distinguish between papers written before the KAU "affiliation" came into play and after, so KAU is able to purchase all of their adjuncts' research for citation purposes, which just seems incredibly weird.

This is pretty standard. The UK is just finishing the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 exercise to gauge standards and finding across its whole university sector. It was entirely possible to have transferred university at the last minute in December 2013 and have all your outputs, income and impact count to your new institution.

This is something pointed out by KAU surgery professor Mohamad Bakhotmah in the comment at the bottom of the page. He sounds genuinely angry about how his university is choosing to allocate its money. It positions Saudi Arabia -- still -- as a site of resource extraction and neo-colonialism. Rich and privileged academics from the first world are getting flown in and given the royal treatment while the actual staff in the departments they're supposedly attached to are underpaid and poorly resourced. And those same internal academics have no say in the governance of their university as there are no democratic mechanisms to represent their concerns.

It sounds like the complaints in the threads about the prioritisation given to sports in US campus threads. I agree with you, because that always seems crazy too. It will be interesting to see how the KAU strategy works in the long term in terms of whether the bought in staff contribute any value for growth, despite its undesirable qualities as a model.

that's not even getting into the question of gender representation and teaching that Pachter foregrounds in his blog post.

This also seems to be a wider problem. Look through the list of most cited mathematicians and there are about 8 women in the top 100, fewer in the top end of the chart where KAU is operating. Clearly KAU is going to have additional issues concerning female hires given its location and the role of women in Saudi Arabian culture needs to change, but if there are hardly any coming through the system what's the excuse for all the other maths departments in the world?
posted by biffa at 3:58 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]




This is pretty standard. The UK is just finishing the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 exercise to gauge standards and finding across its whole university sector. It was entirely possible to have transferred university at the last minute in December 2013 and have all your outputs, income and impact count to your new institution.
Yeah, I'm familiar with the practice of "REF shopping." I know a number of people who successfully put themselves on the REF market in 2012/13. (And, indeed, I'm aware of at least one case where an ECR academic's former and current institution got into an unseemly legal tussle over the ownership of a likely 4* monograph. Ah, academic gossip! How I love you!) But at least in the case of REF shopping, the purchasing institutions and their hires are making real commitments to each other as part of the employer-employee relationship. The KAU case seems much more like a dodgy academic consultancy. I'd argue that the two situations are quite different.
what's the excuse for all the other maths departments in the world?
I'm fully with you here. The figures for gender equality (in certain STEM subjects especially) are really shocking.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:20 AM on November 13, 2014


As with Premier League football teams, so with, uh, mathematics faculties. Astronomical levels of capital can buy prestige in any field.
Apologies for that pun.

Actually, screw it. I enjoyed that.
posted by alexordave at 4:42 AM on November 13, 2014


$72000 per adjunct per year? Wow, I picked the wrong field for my career.

(Anyone know whether they need help in Philosophy? I'd be happy to give a seminar in Ethics.)
posted by oddman at 4:44 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


" The figures for gender equality (in certain STEM subjects especially) are really shocking."

It's not always just STEM either. Philosophy is horrible at it (but some of us are trying!).
posted by oddman at 4:47 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


When the metric becomes more important that the thing the metric is trying to measure, people will chase the metric - at cost of the measure.
posted by lalochezia at 5:16 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]




I always kind of like these cases, where a school figures out a way to directly chase a number rather than the underlying element the number was meant to measure, because it tends to expose how hokey a lot of those measurements actually are. In this case they did it incredibly clumsily, but done in a smarter way it should have been sustainable over a long period of time.

But as noted above and in the link, spending that same money on improving the university itself would presumably have produced much larger (but also much slower) rewards. This sounds like the kind of thing where a bunch of people have been given crazy incentives, such as top administrators being told that they have to improve rankings or they will get fired -- any creative manager will, given enough push, find a way to "juke the statistics" as in The Wire and get the immediate results that are demanded, even if it is patently and obviously dumb in the long-term.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:30 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


When the metric becomes more important that the thing the metric is trying to measure, people will chase the metric - at cost of the measure.

As evidenced by the NCLB/Common Core standardized testing in American public schools.
posted by briank at 5:52 AM on November 13, 2014


The furor over KAU's ridiculous number-gaming here shouldn't distract too much from the fact that the whole methodology is pretty ridic. UHK but no MIT or Chicago?
posted by escabeche at 5:53 AM on November 13, 2014


I don't have a good handle on how effective these kinds of rankings really are in attracting the type of people these universities want to come study, especially at the graduate level. Are people pursuing PhDs in math really opening up the US News and World Report and applying to whatever shows up on the top 10? I could see people doing it at the undergrad level--17 year olds are only so smart. Or maybe it's not about attracting students; rather about attracting money/donors? I have no idea how things work in Saudi Arabia. Either way, it's hard to see how this scheme could possibly work, for values of "work" that go beyond "getting a good ranking".

Two more comments:

1) This isn't limited to mathematics (which is pointed out in the blog post). They're doing it in other fields (at least, biology) as well.
2) Be sure to check out Lior Pachter's other posts (and the comments) for fun science drama.
posted by quaking fajita at 5:54 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Are people pursuing PhDs in math really opening up the US News and World Report and applying to whatever shows up on the top 10? I could see people doing it at the undergrad level--17 year olds are only so smart. Or maybe it's not about attracting students; rather about attracting money/donors?

The ratings matter because people think they matter, and they especially matter to people who have no other metrics to judge by.

My department was an undergoing (routine, systematic) overview by the university, and had to put together a self report about how the department was doing. Part of that report was talking about the NRC rankings, which, for my program, are somewhat bunk, because they had a tendency to include schools that don't even have a department in my area of study. But we still had to talk about the rankings to the higher ups, and explain why it looked like we dropped in the rankings. For someone in our field- who knows where the stars are, and where good research is being done- they don't matter as much; for a dean who doesn't know about the field, they do.
posted by damayanti at 6:30 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


But at least in the case of REF shopping, the purchasing institutions and their hires are making real commitments to each other as part of the employer-employee relationship.

This isn't universally true. Several institutions I know have made part-time fixed term appointments of tenured professors outside the UK on the basis that they could be REF submitted for <1 FTE. It interfaces rather nicely with the US 9 month system, for example.
posted by cromagnon at 7:17 AM on November 13, 2014


I don't see anyone here saying that it's reprehensible. I think it's amusingly clumsy, myself: they broke the metric and so they've wasted their money. If anything, it's a bit sad: the same amount of money could have been spent on actual professors and grad students, and eventually the department might have become genuinely well-regarded.

I don't think it could, actually. You could do it in the UAE or one of the other gulf emirates because you can actually persuade people to live there long term, that's just a lot harder in Saudi Arabia.

If Western academics want to do real research in KSA, they'll go to KAUST which is a mixed gender campus isolated from the rest of Saudi.

The highest ranked university in the UAE (in Al Ain) is based in a relatively quiet, inexpensive oasis town 40 minutes drive from Dubai. That's an easier long term sell to academics than a secured compound in the much less pleasant Saudi.
posted by atrazine at 7:26 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


When the metric becomes more important that the thing the metric is trying to measure, people will chase the metric - at cost of the measure.

And more fundamentally, if you make the metric a separate thing that people care about and get benefits from, it will stop measuring whatever it used to be measuring. The most useful metrics are usually the ones that nobody involved with the process tracks.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:38 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Why the snake again, bites its own tail. Arabs invented our numbers they may as well use them
posted by Oyéah at 11:08 AM on November 13, 2014


From BinGregory's link:

Under the terms of the deal arrived at with Mr Einstein’s heirs, the late scientist will be granted Qatari citizenship posthumously and will be referred to as ‘the German-American-Qatari scientist’. Qatar will acquire the right to use the image of the scientist, known for his theory of relativity and iconic hairstyle, and promote him as one of the leading Qatari scientists

Perhaps this is another semi-common practice, but buying prestige via giving dead people citizenship is a bit off-putting to me.
posted by rosswald at 11:40 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear, the article I link to is satire. Qatar is not actually doing that.
posted by BinGregory at 7:53 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


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