Recently, there has been a lot of finger wagging about King Abdulaziz University (KAU), Jeddah, signing up highly cited researchers as secondary affiliations. The idea behind this was to climb up the ladder of the Shanghai rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities. These rankings include an indicator, based on Thomson Reuters' (TR) lists of highly cited researchers, which until now universities credit for those researchers who list them as secondary affiliation.
The Shanghai Ranking Consultancy decided that this year they would count secondary affiliations in the old but not the new list "at the suggestion of many institutions and researchers including some Highly Cited Researchers".
It is possible that the highly cited researchers mentioned may have upset their primary affiliations who might have noticed that the indicator points accruing to KAU would come out of their own scores. Just counting the primary affiliations in the new list, meant that institutions such as Stanford, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Sydney and the Indian Institute of Science have lost several points for this indicator.
The highly cited indicator is unique among the well known international rankings because when a researcher changes his or her affiliation all of his or her papers go with him or her. It does not matter whether a university has employed a researcher for a day or a decade it will still get the same credit in this indicator. Everything depends on what the researcher puts down as his or her affiliation or affiliations.
All of this is just one manifestation of a problem that has been latent in academic publishing for some years, namely the issue of the affiliation that researchers use when submitting papers or articles. There has probably been quite a bit of small scale fiddling going on for years, with researchers with doctorates from selective universities giving those places as affiliations rather than the technical or education colleges where they are teaching or adjuncts picking the most prestigious of the several institutions where they work.
The best known case of creative affiliation was that of Mohammed El Naschie whose publication career included questionable claims to affiliation with Cambridge, Frankfurt, Surrey and Alexandria Universities (see High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division: Neutral Citation
Number:  EWHC 1809 (QB)).
Most of these claims did no one any good or any harm, apart from a little embarrassment. However, the Alexandria affiliation, combined with Thomson Reuters' distinctive method of counting citations and the university's relatively few publications, propelled Alexandria into the worlds top 5 for research impact and top 200 overall in the the 2010 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.
It is possible that many of the researchers who have signed up for KAU will start showing up in massively cited multi-contributor publications, many of them in physics, that will boost otherwise obscure places into the upper sections of the research impact indicator of the THE rankings.
TR have said that they did not count physics articles with more than 30 authors when they prepared their recent list of highly cited researchers. This might reduce the scores obtained by KAU, Panjab University and some other institutions if TR follow the same procedure in the coming THE world rankings. The issue, however, is not confined to physics.
It is time that journals, databases and ranking organisations began to look carefully at affiliations. At the least, journals should start checking claims and rankers might consider counting only one affiliation per author.
"Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.
American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world."