When reading a research paper, can you be certain that the institution the author claims to be affiliated with is actually the institution that was responsible for supporting the research? In this post Vivienne C. Bachelet presents findings from a recent study suggesting that a significant proportion of author affiliations are unverifiable. Highlighting how a lack of editorial guidance in this area has presented an opening for institutional malpractice, she argues that now is the time to more clearly regulate how authors attribute their research to different research organisations.
When reading a scholarly article, have you ever wondered whether the reported affiliations in the author byline were real or not? Most likely you have not, as doubting an author’s affiliation would breach the trust inherent to academia and scholarly communication. However, as research has become increasingly globalised over the past 30 years, the landscape of author affiliation has become more complex, with ‘multiple affiliations’ becoming the new normal.
Multiple affiliations occur when an author belongs to more than one organization that has contributed to a research project. According to the 6th edition of the publication manual of the American Psychological Association, a dual affiliation may be included if “the two institutions contributed substantial support to the study”. So, let’s say author A is reporting the results of a collaborative research project that involves a university and a research centre. She will, of course, report both affiliations because both have contributed substantially.
However, what if authors – or more accurately a proportion of authors – are systematically reporting affiliations to universities that have not contributed to the research? Should we be surprised, or concerned? You might argue that these situations are what journal editors are for; to check the truthfulness of the metadata associated to a scholarly publication, just like they send the body of the manuscript out for peer review. Well, no. There are no guidance documents or recommendations for editors on how to report affiliations in the author byline, and editors do not consider themselves enforcement officers over what authors submit in the same way they acknowledge their role in upholding the scientific record.
It was in the context of this discussion, that we came across evidence of an author who was publishing in high-impact journals with the name of a Chilean university in exchange for a significant fee without having any ties to that university. Taking Chile as a starting point, we decided to explore the prevalence of non-verifiable Chilean institutional affiliations amongst multiple-affiliated authors. To do this, we conducted an exploratory case study on the whole population of authors with multiple affiliations, one of which was to a Chilean university, included in the Scopus database for 2016. We have published the protocol of the study and, more recently, the full results. We used Google to find the institutional websites that would allow us to corroborate whether reported affiliations were in effect real. We found, shockingly, that 38% of the authors had no publicly available record that could establish a link with the reported university, affecting 40% of the included articles. Private, for-profit universities had a greater proportion of potentially misrepresented author affiliations (40%) compared to private, not-for-profit (28%) and public, State-owned (26%), with unverifiable affiliations occurring mainly in the health sciences and physical sciences; the social sciences were the least affected by this phenomenon. If this potential misconduct is found to be present in more countries, the implications may be far-reaching.
Firstly, university ranking systems use productivity, to a greater or lesser extent, as one of the indicators to rank universities. Consequently, if universities are tweaking the indicator, the result is a distortion of a system used worldwide to compare and assess universities. The effects are probably most pronounced in the middle of the ranks, where it is difficult to stand out from the pack and where there are institutions without the research facilities, scientists, and external grants that take years to set up, but with huge cash flows. These institutions may be tempted to effectively ‘buy’ their way up the ranks by offering honoraria, thereby adding papers to their name, a proportion of which may have resulted from the efforts of other universities, and thus free riding on the efforts, traditions and research systems of others.
Secondly, many universities are mandated to meet national accreditation standards, which, of course, include productivity as one of the key indicators. Cash-flow intensive universities can respond with relative ease to quality indicators on infrastructure but may need to boost indicators such as productivity by using bypass mechanisms like the one we describe in our paper. Furthermore, at least in the case of Chile, accreditation is a prerequisite for state-guaranteed student loans, essential when trying to massify higher education by including first-generation students from lower and middle classes, a way of expanding the market for private, for-profit universities.
Thirdly, many countries provide public funds to universities based on the number of high-impact papers they publish. Once again, misrepresented affiliations will benefit universities who are piggybacking on the efforts of others. Likewise, when experience is considered, grants are also awarded based on the number of publications, among other factors.
So, our exploratory research did confirm that we may be facing a big problem of institutional affiliation misrepresentation, though we cannot conclude that all 978 of 2,583 unique authors of the population of our study are misrepresented. We can say that either a) universities are not doing the job regarding transparency and accuracy of their websites or b) there is an emerging market of universities trying to spuriously pump up their productivity.
What is most alarming is that up to now, and to the best of our knowledge, no one has called out the emperor’s new clothes. Journals should be made aware that potentially one-third of reported affiliations are not truthful, a finding to be confirmed with further multi-country studies. To address this, ranking houses could punish universities who breach research integrity standards by tweaking indicators, much like how journals found harbouring citation cartels were punished by being stripped of their impact factor. International neutral bodies like COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) or the ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) could also act and start working on guidance documents and specific recommendations on the proper and ethical reporting of author affiliations. Scientific communication relies on public trust so, when this trust is questioned, we need to find solutions without delay.
This post draws on the author’s co-authored article, Misrepresentation of institutional affiliations: The results from an exploratory case study of Chilean authors, published in Learned Publishing.
About the author
Vivienne C. Bachelet is an MD with an MSc in Clinical Epidemiology. She is Associate Professor in the School of Medicine of the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (USACH), where she teaches evidence-based medicine and does research on publication ethics, research integrity, reporting guidelines, methods and health policies. Vivienne is also founder and editor-in-chief of Medwave, a medical journal based in Santiago, Chile. Vivienne just ended a three-year term in COPE council in September, 2019.
Image Credit: BRRT via Pixabay (Licensed under a CC0 licence).
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Institutions play an important part in this, too. I am a researcher at a well known University in London. Much of my work is done in healthcare settings and I have an honorary contract with a major research hospital in the South of England. I also have an honorary appointment at an Australian University. Both of these organisations place a contractual obligation on me to record them as my affiliations in publications irrespective of where the work I report was conducted. Occasionally, I meet these obligations, but most of the time I don’t because journals will rarely allow multiple affiliations….
Three points, if I may :
First, if the university is paying the scholar, is that not a contribution to the study? Is that categorically different than a regular salary?
Second, never mind Chile. There are far wealthier countries where universities can pay substantially more to well-known scholars to essentially license their names. Sometimes there is no connection at all. Sometimes the scholars have to drop in for a week or two and perhaps give a seminar or a few lectures. Sometimes it is just required that the institution is listed in a paper
Third, how about the reverse? That is , scholars claiming affiliations to elite institutions in order to basque in their prestige but without having any real connections to the said institutions? I am sure that also happens.
Everyone, individuals and institutions, is trying to game the system. It is certainly an issue worth some scrutiny.
I am glad that in this form you do not ask for my affiliation because I have none
However for 38 years I have researched, written and published.
What I think of this topic is that it is very misleading.
What matters in an article is just the quality of the ideas. In 1905 when Albert Einstein submitted and published his article about special relativity he was just an obscure clerk at the patent office in Bern.
Why was he allowed to publish his article on Annalen der Physik without any “academic affiliation”?
Perhaps those were wiser times.
If we allow publications in reputed journals without institutional affiliation, most of this problem will disappear. The reason why some authors misrepresent affiliation, when the institution hasn’t contributed is because they cannot publish otherwise. Stop the culture of respect based on affiliation and things will improve.
Totally agree but i would like to emphasize that they are outhere people that can make great research but because they don’t belong to an institution are being pushed away by the system! If research means money then those who don’t have it won’t make research! And this is not good….
My dilemma is that I am a Teaching Assistant and only paid for being that. Reason is: University does not want to give me paid research time. So: not paid a single penny for doing research. Should I still mention my university aa ny affiliation although they do not invest anything in my research (I am the only author by the way)? I feel being affilliated to a university gives you more credibility as a researcher rather than being an ‘independent scholar’. On the other hand I am doing this in m’y own time and am not supported financially or otherwise for m’y research. What are your thoughts?
First of all, I would like to thank all of you for posting comments on this article.
Second, on your question, Elizabeth, we have the same problem in my institution–most of the academic staff are not on the tenure track but are “casuals” (to use Raewyn Connell’s expression)*, and therefore paid only to teach. Yours is a great question: is it right for a university that has invested zero in the research done, nor provided any support services for the manuscript, nor paid for the author’s salary, to get credit for the paper when published?
This is why we really need well-thought-out guidelines and recommendations for journal editors, as so much is riding nowadays on productivity.
*Connell, Raewyn. The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why Its Time for Radical Change (p. ii). Zed Books. Kindle.
Yes, I do agree but without any affiliation one can carry on research/discovery with his/her own sources. There are series of scientists perform their research and patents with their own sources. But so far Publication is concern, it must be original research manuscript.
Dear Prof. Vivienne C. Bachele,
I read with interest your article with the caption ‘What’s in a name? How false author affiliations are damaging academic research’.
I quite agree there are many universities trying to game the ranking system through this approach. This may be more prevalent in Asia, China and Vietnam in particular. I am aware of a university in Vietnam, Ton Duc Thang University (TDTU). The TDTU engages high performing foreign academics as part-time researchers for sole aim of publishing in high impact factor journals for a fee. It is not surprising that today, TDTU is a leading university in Vietnam and ranked 700th position worldwide by THE in 2020.
I suppose the ranking bodies should be aware of this ethical breach and sanction erring violators accordingly.