One way to boost your uni’s ranking: Ask faculty to cite each other

Readers who follow scientific publishing will know the term “citation stacking” — as a profile-boosting technique, we’ve seen journals ask authors to cite them, and individual scientists work together to cite each other, forming “citation cartels.” And now, we’ve seen a university do it.

A university in Malaysia has instructed its engineering faculty to cite at least three papers by their colleagues; the more citations a university accrues, the better its ranking in many international surveys. We obtained the original notice, dated August 3 and released by the University of Malaya, and translated it via One Hour Translation. Our English version says:

All Academic Staff

Faculty of Engineering


Key Performance Indicators (KPI) Confirmation for 2017

Please refer to the subject-matter stated above.

  1. As had been informed earlier, the KPI Confirmation for all University of Malaya staff has been opened and the final date for the KPI Confirmation is 9 August 2017.
  2. For the Academic Staff at the Faculty of Engineering, the First Appraisal Officer (PPP) has determined the KPI for each departmental staff (please refer to the KPI). Under Section 6, Faculty Specific Duties you are required to type:

(1) “Citation: To cite at least 3 relevant papers of colleagues in each of your publication”

  1. Other additional tasks are subject to the PPP of each PYD.

I would be pleased if you could take necessary action before 9 August 2017.

The notice is signed by Professor Ir. Dr. Noor Azuan Abu Osman, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. We contacted him to ask what prompted the practice, and what penalties researchers will face if they fail to cite three papers by their colleagues. We received a response from a university spokesperson, who told us:

With reference to the issue of citations at the Faculty of Engineering, UM, it is common practice among academics at the Faculty concerned to cite the publications of academics at the same Faculty or from other Faculties within the University provided that the publications are relevant to the study conducted.

This is also practiced by academic staff in general at UM and other universities.

Academics are encouraged to acknowledge and cite fellow academics where Relevant.

(The original guidelines don’t appear to include the caveat that citations be related to the study.)

Of course, this isn’t the only technique universities use to boost their metrics. Recently, we ran a story in Science about institutions (including many in Western countries) who pay faculty for publications; a 2011 report in Science showed that universities in Saudi Arabia were giving tens of thousands of dollars to highly cited researchers to take a secondary position there, ensuring the institution gets listed on prominent papers.

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17 thoughts on “One way to boost your uni’s ranking: Ask faculty to cite each other”

  1. Amazing how individuals and organizations quickly learn how to game systems that are meant to track performance or to promote accountability. A very early report on the use of “social indicators” in the 1960s warned against the perverse effects of adopting such systems.

    I see no solution in sight except to educate audiences to apply a huge discount to statistics that are used to promote individual and organizational interests. How can it be that all hospitals in the vicinity are among the “best ten nationally” or that the majority of graduates “rise to the top of their occupations?” We seem to live in Jonathan Keillor’s celebrated community of Lake Woebegon, where everybody is “above average.”

    1. Dear Mr. Noble
      Adding to your comment and “chipping off surprise from this a bit:
      Thinking about Thomas Kuhn if our paradigm is metrics for the sake of metrics, it is inevitable to play a system that is designed to reward those who follow a metric that is intended to acknowledge blunt indicators that are designed by administrative staff not by scientists.
      How far from.true that we live in a n era of scientifically driven progress. We live actually live in a very sad era science-wise. How monopolized the scientific activities are and how far from romantic discovery.

      1. “We live actually live in a very sad era science-wise. How monopolized the scientific activities are and how far from romantic discovery.”

        Sorry you feel that way. I have no idea where you are located or what makes you feel this way.

        I feel the opposite.

        Yes, science like all endeavors has its challenges – these days it’s mostly political.

        Yes, funding is tight, but is it really monopolized (by whom?).

        I don’t feel that science is in a sad era. Far from it – advances continue at a remarkable pace and opportunities for discovery have IMO never been better.

  2. University rankings are used to promote the use of some publishers tools and products. And while citation cartels boost ranking, retractions due to research misconduct do not have any impact on university ranking or academics standing. And thus, one can say that research misconduct pays off because it doesn’t hurt to publish now and retract later: 1) rankings include publication/citation counts from previous years and 2) most retractions are hidden.

  3. It is only the most egregiously enfeebled organizations that engage in this sort of open and notorious corruption. The organizations can be political, commercial, or academic. Projecting this out further, political organizations go through a revolution, commercial organization are sent to a receivership – academic organizations rebrand.

    1. Martin,
      I stand corrected. I stated “everybody” when Keillor mentioned only all Lake Woebegon children were above average, viz., “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” The so-called Lake Woebegon effect is pervasive and perhaps many if not most organizations project illusory superiority because it is expected.

  4. Alison, you write that “The original guidelines don’t appear to include the caveat that citations be related to the study”.

    Being the Devil’s Advocate for a moment here, did the guidelines not say “(1) “Citation: To cite at least 3 relevant papers of colleagues in each of your publication” “?

    I would read the “relevant” as “relevant to the study”.

    The obvious problem with that is that putting a number on the required Institutional self-citations makes many studies suddenly “relevant” for the sole reason that they are from the some Institution.

    1. Money and prestige are at the heart of the race to publication for both the schools and the scientist, or researcher, or “insert university position title”. It is often about getting ahead at any cost. While not true at all schools and cultures, it’s a safe assumption on the motivators to the chicanery.

  5. Please find below a dissenting voice from the academic staff association of the university against the directive. PKAUM is the malay acronym for the association, Persatuan kakitangan Akademik Universiti Malaya. There are still sane and wise academics at Universiti Malaya.

    23 August 2017

    Citation Stacking in UM


    It has come to the attention of PKAUM that there is currently an institutionalised practice of “citation stacking” in our university.

    “Citation stacking” is the practice of purposefully citing the work of colleagues in order to boost their own profile as well as the profile of the university. The “advantage” of this practice is to inflate the importance of individual academics and to raise the university’s standing in any ranking system that uses citations as a criteria.

    There is nothing wrong in citing the works of others but only if it is relevant to one’s own work. To do so to boost one another’s standing and to raise the university’s ranking is not justifiable and in fact is dishonest because it seeks to “play the system” for personal and institutional gains.

    The Faculty of Engineering, fresh from the latest display of poor governance of treating academic staff like criminals by using a bio metric attendance system, has been uncovered to be involved in “citation stacking”. In a letter dated 3 August 2017, signed by Professor Ir. Dr. Noor Azuan Abu Osman, Dean of the Faculty, staff members are required to cite three of their colleagues in each of their publications. This is now part of staff members KPI in the Faculty of Engineering and it has been noticed by the outside world with a report on the matter published by Retraction Watch. The article can be read here :

    This is an unacceptable practice by the Dean of Engineering for the following reasons:

    1. It is potentially unethical, especially if the citation has no or minimal relevance to the work at hand and is done merely to “play the system” of personal aggrandisement and institutional rankings boosting

    2. It places a ridiculous demand on academic staff by linking “citation stacking” to their own academic performance (via the KPI)

    3. It erodes academic freedom as staff are being forced to cite their colleagues whether they want to or not.

    For these reasons PKAUM insists that the top management of the university put a stop to this unsavoury practice. We also would like to propose a change of dean in the Faculty of Engineering, preferably through secret ballot. There has been too many issues coming from that PTJ which affects the values, ethics and principles of academia.


    Azmi Sharom

    1. It’s good to know there are still genuine smart people in UM. Similar behaviors (strategizing to boost ranking / image rather than true quality) also exist in other unis. Citation stacking is only one of these strategies. Another long-practised self-serving strategy is “buying” GOLD MEDALS by the lorry loads by our local unis. All these “academic criminals” should be awarded stars in the HALL OF SHAME! I certainly hope the rotten meat (citing Anonymous4 above) will soon be EXPOSED as the countries’ MONEY-WASTERS!

  6. I always wonder when a dean or head of department doing something like this, what is actually his/her KPI? Ranking? Pleasing the boss? or really want to improve the ‘running’ of the department? Is this kind of ‘activities’ can be considered ‘fraud’ or misconduct?. I truly believe this kind activity is due to vague university policy in their research ‘adventure’.

  7. This clearly demonstrates majority of academic staffs have no idea the philosophy of research, made worst by the lack of scientific integrity and honesty. In times, maybe within these few years, new algorithms can be used to detect it very easily. The rotten meat will end up to be revealed in public.

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