A person I know was in the process of publishing her first manuscript when her supervisor told her to add his newly acquired affiliation from a university in Saudi Arabia to his name. The Saudi Arabian university hired this Supervisor as guest faculty and were essentially paying him for adding them as one of the affiliated universities in all the forthcoming manuscripts.

This was of major ethical concern to my acquaintance. In recent years, Saudi universities have been accused in multiple different prominent articles of "buying rankings" by paying prominent faculty to list them as an affiliation, even though the faculty have little real interaction with the university. To many, this looks like simple bribery or unethical sale of reputation, particularly give the high sums of money involved.

My acquaintance was concerned that, if her advisor was listing this affiliation on her paper, then she would be aiding and abetting in this unethical behavior. Unfortunately, her confrontation with her advisor went badly, and although she was able to publish the paper without the questionable affiliation, the relationship was destroyed and she ended up resigning the laboratory under pressure.

Now my question is this: what should a junior researcher do when they feel they are being asked to be party to "affiliation fraud" of this sort? We would not ask a person to remain silent if they thought a co-author was being unethically added or removed. Should unethical addition or removal of an affiliation be treated the same way?

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    Listing a university affiliation does not imply any level of support or convey any ownership of the project. It is like giving an alternate address. Therefore a coauthor objecting to a university affiliation is irregular and sounds like a lot of worry over something that is not the coauthor's business. Getting paid to list what amounts to alternate contact information is also weird. If the faculty member is not spending any time in residence at the Saudi Arabian university then it begins to seem problematic. But...why would a student quit her PhD over this: why is it a problem for her? Jun 20, 2015 at 5:44
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    Did the professor want to make it look as though the student were affiliated with the Saudi university, or just reflect his own affiliations? Jun 20, 2015 at 6:46
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    While this is rather questionable ethics by the advisor, the student (or any collaborator) shouldn't really need to care what somebody else mentions as affiliation on a paper. I honestly believe the student overreacted. (of course the question remains how great the relationship was to start with if such a tiny thing can destroy it completely)
    – xLeitix
    Jun 20, 2015 at 7:52
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    Exactly what @xLeitix and pete said. The professor had the right to state his desired affiliation and it is none of the student's business. The affiliation never implies where the work actually took place (it is 2015, we have emails and skype for god's sake) only what grant pays for the person's research. And what did the student do? Refused to state the desired affiliation of the professor in the journal (this is a major mistake for any co-author) and fought over it with a senior staff of the university (why?). I think the supervisor is 100% right in this case.
    – Alexandros
    Jun 20, 2015 at 8:08
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    @Alexandros, so if the professor wants to put "University of the Moon" as their affiliation, the junior researcher has to roll over and take it? There's more to affiliation than just an address. The university in question may trumpet this work (press release), claim the the professor as their own, etc. This will reflect on all the authors. If one of the coauthors knows this is fraudulent, then they have a responsibility to prevent it. If the affiliation is gray and the coauthor can't defend it, it might be worth fighting over. Especially for a practice that's been in the news.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 20, 2015 at 13:03

6 Answers 6


To my mind, this case is very similar to the question of whether somebody can essentially pay for co-authorship. We see many questions of this sort on this site, a particular apropos example of which is this one, which asks in part:

Suppose I'm a billionaire who knows nothing about science, but I take it into my head that I want to be (regarded as) a famous scientist.

The case of the Saudi Arabian affiliations looks to me very much like a parallel construct:

Suppose I'm a billionaire institution which does little significant research, but I take it into my head that I want to be (regarded as) a famous institution.

I think that it is completely reasonable to find this problematic, and to object to a co-author adding this institution, just as one might object to a co-author adding the billionaire know-nothing as another author.

Now the question is what to do about it, and, as in these authorship questions, the advice tends to depend strongly on the power dynamics of the situation. On this site, we often advise students to leave bad situations rather than creating a confrontation, due to the power imbalance with faculty. For people in positions of power, however, like tenured faculty, it is an effective endorsement of unethical behavior if you are aware of it and do not call it out. It may not be a hill to die on, but either you care enough to make your voice heard or else you accept the behavior as legitimate.

In this particular case, the student may have acted unwisely with regards to safeguarding their own future, but it may also have been important enough to them to take that ethical stand. It's impossible for us to know how important it was to that person, and it's easy to engage in post-facto critique of their tactics, but I think the concern is legitimate and the actions taken are within the range of reasonable options, depending on how strongly the student felt about the ethics involved.

In short: some people choose not to take military money, not to work on espionage-related research, or not to publish in non-open journals. Choosing not to be party to what you perceive as bribery for prestige is just as legitimate an ethical choice to make.

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    It seems to me a related issue is when famous researchers get added to a lesser-known university's faculty for a sizable salary and in return they do very little other than show up to give some talks once a year (or not even that). All this can be considered "gray area" but somehow people typically only get upset when it is done blatantly rather than wink-nudge style. Jun 20, 2015 at 18:53
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    Playing devil's advocate, there is little difference between a university that pays you only to do research and a funding agency. Aug 3, 2018 at 10:27
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    @FedericoPoloni: one may argue that the funding agency doesn't get listed as affiliation. But: it is quite normal for research institutions to pay one for just doing research. And depending on the topic of that research, doing this remotely can also be quite normal. Jul 22, 2019 at 7:14

One unwritten rule of any scientific collaboration between co-authors is that each party should trust the other. If I collaborate on one paper with another scientist (who might be located in another part of the world) and he is affiliated with more than one institutions (e.g., a university and a research institute or a second university while on sabbatical) and tells me that he likes his affiliation on this specific paper to be "Institute A" or "Institute B" I trust that he is doing the right thing. When he wants me to add an acknowledgement about a specific grant, I put the acknowledgement he wants for HIS part and I put the acknowledgement for my grant that I want. I have never felt the need to question neither the grant acknowledgement or the affiliation of another collaborator. For me, it is always a matter of trust. I do not collaborate with people I do not trust and I trust the people I collaborate with.

On my CS domain, where conferences are the main publishing venue, sometimes the affiliation or the grant explicitly written on a paper, sometimes corresponds to who or how the trip expenses of the suggested paper will be covered. In those cases, the author may have prior discussed this with the administrative division of his institute and only follows the provided instructions. Again, I have never thought of any of this as a big deal, because it is more of a administrative technicality than a real issue.

As far as the OP original question, her advisor wanted to list both affiliations (not just the "shady" one). In my mind, this was really not a big thing. Instead the OP by escalating this issue, was basically forced to resign from her PhD. And all this for what? So that a small obscure university has one less citation? It makes no sense and there are much more important ethical fights that is worth fighting for within Academia.

It would be a whole different story though, if the OP was forced to put another affiliation for herself. In that case, she should have a saying on which is her preferred affiliation. But fighting for the listed affiliation on another co-author makes absolutely no sense to me.

  • Some of this answer addresses parts of the question that have now been removed or at least veiled. It might be best to edit them out.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 20, 2015 at 13:28

I'm going to disagree with the other answers. In particular, I don't think it is similar to buying authorship at all.

Listing someone as a coauthor means their contribution was to do some of the work, so listing someone who merely paid you is unethical, because it misrepresents their contribution. But listing an institution as an affiliation normally means that you are paid by that institution.

So far as I can see, the only problem would be if the supervisor's German institution felt that they were paying for exclusive affiliation rights. But that would be a matter between them and him.


Withdraw from the collaboration.

Certainly, she cannot insist that the other author breach his contractual arrangement or indeed disregard his own reasonable view on where he is affiliated merely because she is unhappy in how the affiliation arose.

If his view on where he was affiliated was essentially a fiction of his own invention, I think, it would be reasonable to take a robust position against perpetuating a fiction or a fraud. But that is not, from what I understand of the question, what has happened here. If he is paid by the university in some academic capacity related to the paper, for whatever reason and for whatever work is delivered, then I believe he is entitled to assert that he is "affiliated" with that university when publishing the paper. And the university may well require him to make that assertion. It is no less reasonable than a grant body asking to be acknowledged when work is produced from a grant.

If that is too much for her to tolerate, then the cost of having that kind of ethical standard is to withdraw from the collaboration and desist in publishing the paper: ethics would be worthless if they had no cost to their subscribers.

I have to add, when I read the title I thought the question would concern a proposed affiliation with an ISIS or Al-Qaedea subgroup, or at least with a supplier of arms technology to a capricious dictator.

Frankly, to get upset that a university in a developing country has to promote itself against the entrenched western universities by retaining (effectively) a consultant on their payroll, is bordering on the absurd. There are many problems in the world and many problems in academia. Saudi Arabia throwing some money at a small number of professors is not one of them.

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    For some, it's not just some random developing country. As such, I think the ethics of not wanting your work associated with Saudi Arabia are defensible. For some people, this country's approach to religious rules and questions of gender are too far to one end of the spectrum to want to be associated with them in any way. Others take a view that interactions with more liberal countries may be liberalizing, but not everyone takes this view. Labeling these strong moral positions as absurd is itself a moral position, and doesn't really enhance your answer.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 20, 2015 at 13:59
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    @BillBarth I'm not taking a position about affiliating with Saudi Arabia as a country nor discussing at any point the integrity of the country's political system. I'm taking a position about someone saying "a university is not well known so it is not entitled to hire good people to improve its reputation". :)
    – Calchas
    Jun 20, 2015 at 14:16
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    Yeah, but as it appears here, if the work is done and a university comes along and says "Here's some money, start adding me to your papers including anything you submit to day," that might be problematic. If the arrangement was made ahead of the work, then I see no problem. There's some gray area here. Who should I list when I move institutions in the middle of the project? Etc. Etc.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 20, 2015 at 14:19
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    @BillBarth That's a separate point to the "Saudi Arabia is immoral" question. But my argument is that the determination of that grey area is made by the author who is or would be affiliated with the institution, not by anyone else. Other people on the paper might disagree with the determination, but ultimately it is not for them to decide. (In my view.)
    – Calchas
    Jun 20, 2015 at 14:21
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    I can't 100% agree, but I do agree with you that the right approach is to withdraw if you are opposed to this kind of citation buying through affiliation. This whole "it's nobody else's business who I affiliate with" position is not so absolute to me. Everyone's name is on the paper, and so any ethical issues associated with the paper will fall on all the authors to some measure.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 20, 2015 at 14:28

A contrarian view: in my opinion, every author is responsible for listing their own affiliations. If they do something unethical, as here, or some other wrong thing, e.g., forgetting to list one of their current legitimate affiliations, then I fail to see why the other authors would somehow held accountable. Indeed, sometimes a researcher can very legitimately end up co-authoring a paper where they have never even physically met some of the people involved in the collaboration. How could they be expected to check that they are listing their affiliations properly? In practice, I always trust my co-authors to list their affiliations, and I'm not going to go and start questioning what they do.

To me this is very different from adding, e.g., a bogus author to a paper. It's reasonable to expect that every author of a paper would know what each author contributed, and so if someone wants to unethically add someone who didn't contribute to the paper, the other authors should complain. (Although to some extent even this isn't so clear: if I end up contributing to a paper where a PhD student I have never met has listed their advisor as an author of the paper, can I reasonably ascertain if the advisor meets reasonable criteria for authorship? Probably not...)

In the present situation, I think it's a bit less clear, because the student thought they knew that the affiliation was indeed fraudulent. But in general, why would they care? Simply assume your co-author knows what they're doing, I'd say. If it's unethical, they should be the ones to bear the blame.


The main issue here could be with the university or institution which the co-author works for. It spends money not only for his or her salary, but also for the infrastructure and environment supporting the research; the expected return is, in part, in publications supporting its reputation. Depending on the country, it may be stated explicitly so in the work contract it issues.

Having a third partly spending considerably less money (and not alleviating at all the burden of the institution) to achieve the same effect is clearly a problem.

I would personally advise to raise the issue to the board (or equivalent) of the institution. They are the ones getting ripped off.

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