Saveetha Dental College under scanner for inflating ranking: ‘Science’ report

According to an investigation, SDC may have engaged in an unethical practice to propel itself to the top of university rankings.

June 09, 2023 10:15 am | Updated 09:24 pm IST - Chennai

A view of Saveetha Dental College, Chennai.

A view of Saveetha Dental College, Chennai.

Saveetha Dental College (SDC), Chennai, is first on the list of most-cited dentistry institutions in the world, in the QS World University Rankings, and first-ranked in India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework for dental schools.

But according to a new investigation by Science and Retraction Watch, SDC may have engaged in an unethical practice called extreme self-citation to boost its citation score, a common but fallible measure of research quality, and propel itself to the top of these and other ranking schemes.

Extreme self-citation

When one research paper invokes the findings of another paper, the latter is said to have been cited by the former. The more citations a paper has, the more its influence on the field is construed to be. A common way to ‘hack’ this system is to generously cite one’s own papers, even if they’re not related meaningfully to the paper at hand.

For example, Science and Retraction Watch reported that the introduction of a 2022 paper coauthored by SDC researchers contains an innocuous line – “Our team has a wider research knowledge and experience that has been converted into high impact publications” – followed by 15 citations to other SDC papers.

SDC professor Sheeja Varghese told Science, “We don’t want anything to happen in an unethical way, that is our policy.” But an adjunct associate professor at SDC, Adith Venugopal, said that the number of self-citations “may be something like a university trying to cite itself more for gaining some rankings or something of that sort”.

Elsevier, Clarivate respond

As of 8.40 am on June 9, a page on the website of the Saveetha Institute of Medical and Technical Sciences, of which SDC is a part, proclaimed that SDC is “the highest ranked Indian Institution in QS World University Rankings”.

Since the Science and Retraction Watch investigation began, Elsevier — the publishing company whose research database is one of a few important bases for institution rankings — and Clarivate Analytics, a company that tracks paper citations, have said that they are examining SDC’s citation patterns.

SDC, however, is standing its ground and does not believe that it has erred, according to a four-page statement it shared with The Hindu. The statement said that “ranking agencies do not consider papers with self-citations”, that SDC doesn’t see “any problem with an institution having growth in publications”, and that as a university it couldn’t “limit the interaction of research groups across disciplines”.

Past incidents

This case aside, self-citations to boost institutional rankings are not new in India. In 2017, VelTech University, Chennai, hit the national spotlight after an analysis by researchers published in Current Science found that it had received 100/100 in the ‘citations’ section of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings; citations were weighted at 30% of the overall score.

The analysis reported that 86% of these citations came from papers authored by Sundarapandian Vaidyanathan and that 96% of his citations, for papers published in 2012-2016, were self-citations.

Some research communities around the world have been known to maintain “citation farms”, a practice whereby they cite each others’ papers to a great degree to inflate their standings.

While extreme self-citation is considered unethical, self-citation to a lesser extent is considered unavoidable in very niche fields, with very few papers on the same topic, or when researchers are embarking on an exciting new line of research.

At the international level, on the other hand, researchers have found that systematic bias has caused citations to historically localise within a few communities and countries, creating “citation distortion”.

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