Numbers that matter

Beauty pageants may make the news, but they fail miserably to focus on what really matters in the end, the soul

Muhammad Hamid Zaman September 19, 2017
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Earlier this week, Professor Mathias Egger, head of Swiss National Science Foundation and a distinguished professor of epidemiology, shared on social media a rather disturbing letter he received from a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. The letter was a simple proposal to Professor Mathias. If he were to change his affiliation on a couple of selected websites (such as and to King Saud, he would get up to $175,000 (per year). The reason behind this offer is simple — and has to do with university rankings. These two websites (along with a few others) are used as a database by ranking agencies (and newspapers) to see how many highly cited and quality research papers are coming from a given institution. So when someone were to look up a leading researcher in epidemiology on these websites, Dr. Egger’s name would come up, along with his affiliation with King Saud. This would boost the rankings of the university since his papers would be put in the column of King Saud University. For those who create rankings, it wouldn’t matter if he ever did any work at King Saud or not. It would be one thing for Dr Egger to move to King Saud and do all of his work there, and contribute to the academic culture of the university. It’s quite another to just change the affiliation on the website and have a superficial connection.

Dr Egger did the right thing by sharing the letter on social media and raised the question about integrity of international affiliations and collaborations. It is one thing to collaborate on intellectually rich projects, quite another to buy citations in order to boost reputation. Unfortunately, his case is not the only one. I personally know colleagues, who had never heard of any university in Saudi Arabia, get similar proposals, with enormous sums of money to change their affiliation temporarily in order to boost rankings. Newspapers in California have also written about these shady schemes. Unlike the emails from widows of Nigerian oil barons, which are spam, these proposals are real.

Apart from the preposterous nature of these proposals, there is a bigger question, of why rankings matter and for whom? And how far are universities willing to go to inch up on these metrics? It is perhaps this question that we have to think a bit more about in the context of Pakistan. Every other week or so, another global ranking of university comes online. Our newspapers run the headline about whether any Pakistani university made it in the top 500 or 1,000 of global or regional rankings. I have written in the past about the flawed metrics, but there is a deeper question here as well. How much should the rankings matter to incoming students? The rankings, apart from all their flaws, are based on research metrics, publications, patents and citations. All of these factors are far more relevant for graduate education and research than undergraduate education and teaching.

In the context of Pakistan, our graduate institutions are few, and the number of students engaged in PhD level research is much smaller than those who are engaged at the bachelor’s level. Issues such as teaching quality, class size, emphasis on creative thinking, gender balance, freedom of expression, opportunities for outside the class learning, ability to engage in complex debates and a campus where we feel intellectually and physically safe, regardless of our ethnicity, religion or worldview are far more important. I wonder how many prospective undergraduates in Pakistan really care whether the professors had fewer papers in the last year or more? It is not to say that these numbers are irrelevant, it is simply to say that there are more important things.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we are able to evaluate our institutions on their ability to welcome new ideas and students from all backgrounds and opinions and ensure that they are taught well, and made engaged and socially conscious citizens in a safe environment.

Beauty pageants, whether for individuals or institutions, may make the news, but they fail miserably to focus on what really matters in the end, the soul.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2017.

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