Finally, the Top Italian Scientists have founded their own journal and called it the Top Italian Scientists Journal. But who are the Top Italian Scientists? They are the scientists who appear in a ‘do-it-yourself’ ranking called TIS. To be ‘accepted’ among the TIS you must have an h-index of at least 30 according to Google Scholar. The TIS Journal accepts only articles authored by at least a TIS. Its editorial board is extraordinary. There is Salvatore Cuzzocrea, who resigned in October as rector of the University of Messina and president of Conference of the Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI) over a judiciary investigation into reimbursements for research activities. His articles have been the subject of 158 reports on pubpeer – mostly related to incorrect images- and he has recently gathered 3 retractions. There is Domenico Ribatti, co-author of one of the retracted articles by Paolo Macchiarini, the surgeon sentenced in Sweden “to two years and six months imprisonment after being found guilty of aggravated violence against three of his patients,” featured in the Netflix series Bad Surgeon. Also well represented are former members of the governing board of the national agency for evaluation of research (ANVUR): with a former president and two former board members. It is unfair, however, to dwell on unfortunate cases. Let us then look at the statistics: articles from TIS are retracted or put under scrutiny, for anomalies in images or otherwise, with a frequency far outside the norm. We read the first article published by the journal: more than 60 percent of it literally reproduces pieces of articles already published elsewhere and signed in the vast majority of cases by other authors. It is well known that citation doping is easy, through self-citations or citation exchanges. Even Clarivate has long claimed to exclude from its rankings those whose numbers are too big to be true, for example, those who are overproductive. In the last edition, it deleted the ranking of mathematicians, declaring that it was unable to distinguish between highly cited authentic and farcical ones. As if one year people no longer run the Tour de France because substances invisible to doping tests are circulating. We Italians have uncritically embraced these numerical criteria, making them the heart of the recruitment and promotion system, and the consequences are now visible. Moral of the story: given the company, does it suit one’s reputation to be on the TIS list?

Ringing of fanfares: just as in soccer, a new era is opening for the Italian academy. In soccer, green light for the super league of the strongest and most emblazoned teams that will no longer have to compete with mediocre national teams. In the Italian academy, the super journal of excellent Italian scientists has just arrived. Excellent in what sense? Nobel prizes? More medals? No, bibliometrically excellent. For decades there have been databases that take into account not only the articles published, but also who cites whom. A type of measure that has had many supporters in Italy and that for 10 years has been the basis for the recruitment of professors, regulated by Anvur, the national agency for university and research evaluation. A true panacea to restore the academy of rigged recruitment procedures and nepotism.

Finally, the Top Italian Scientists have founded their own journal and called it the Top Italian Scientists Journal. But who are the Top Italian Scientists? They are the scientists who appear in a ‘do-it-yourself’ ranking called TIS. To be ‘accepted’ among the TIS you must have an h-index of at least 30 calculated on Google Scholar (which means: having written 30 articles that have each received at least 30 citations on Google Scholar).

1. The TIS ranking (and its history).

The Top Italian Scientists ranking was launched by Mauro degli Esposti and Luca Boscolo around 2010 [see here]. There is a public version based on Google Scholar data, and a restricted access version based on Scopus data (to which we do not have access). To date it appears that the sole maintainer is Luca Boscolo (here). The TIS ranking continues to be an entirely opaque object: it is not possible to know what server it is on (whois is covered by privacy), who puts up the resources, how the TIS club is formed, much less how the TIWS women’s club is run.

Parallel to the rankings, a VIA-Academy (Virtual Italian Academy) had been built, which had attempted the establishment of a telematics university [link to news at the time here], which failed before it was born [see here]. VIA-academy’s website has disappeared from the web, but you can visit it here. And you can see the only recent activity we found evidence of here.

Paolo Giudici, a statistician from the University of Pavia, obviously one of the TIS, and Luca Boscolo reconstruct the history of the TIS ranking with an old-fashioned narrative style (interested readers will enjoy the entire article here):

The Top Italian Scientists database started in 2010 when Luca Boscolo got
inspired by an article that gathered a list of 300 Italian academics in Italy and
abroad with the highest scientific impact in any area. To measure the scientific
impact they used the h-index. Luca had the idea to download the entire list of
the academics working for the Italian universities (about 54k people) and for
each of them calculated their h-index using Google Scholar as database. Luca
then extracted a list (about a 1k people) whose h-index was greater or equal
than 30. The result was called “list Top Italian Scientists” (TIS), and a paper
was published displaying a list of the Italian universities ordered by the number
of TIS. The paper was cited by some of the main Italian newspapers such as
La Stampa and it went viral scattering a huge interest in the academic world.
After that, Luca started to get flooded with emails congratulating the work or
indicating someone with h-index ¿= 30 [sic]. After more than 12 years the list has
grown up from a 1k to more than 5.5 k. Nowadays this list is known to all
Italian academics working in Italy or abroad.

If one does not stop at the self-apologetics of TIS, one can verify quite easily that when some politician or journalist has used the TIS ranking, he or she has gotten himself or herself into quite a bit of trouble.

The Lombardy Region used the TIS ranking to select jurors and prize-winners for the Lombardy Prize. Once again, creating bewilderment among journalists and scholars (for a summary see Tiziana Metitieri here and here).

The TIS ranking even elicits hilarity when observed by nonItalians. Here for example Leonid Schneider recalls the role in climbing the ranks of the Iranian paper-mills, organisations dedicated to the production of articles often associated with the sale of authorisations of convenience.

Roars also dealt with the TIS list in 2012 [here] with an article entitled Classifiche incredibili (Unbelievable rankings). The mathematician Alessandro Figà Talamanca caustically commented:

It should be added that as long as the decision on who signs a job is made by the bosses, we will continue to see scientifically disqualified characters on the list of top Italian scientists who are only capable of exploiting the work of young people.

2. Il nuovo Top Italian Scientists Journal

At the beginning of 2024, the Top Italian Scientists Journal appeared on the web [here]. In recent weeks we have saved a few versions on the wayback machines because the site appears to be constantly changing].

The journal purports to be an open access journal (no payment is required to read the articles published there), multidisciplinary (covering all areas of human knowledge except, as I understand it, the humanities). It declares that it adopts a single-blind peer review model: articles before being published are read by anonymous reviewers who are aware of the authors of the articles. To adhere to the principles of the Committee for Ethis in Publications (COPE).

And to adopt an Open Access Gold model: authors of accepted articles pay for publication.

There are, however, several quirks.

Let’s start with the formal ones. The website states that ‘TISJ is not currently live yet’. Who knows what that means. The articles do not have DOIs, but the site informs us that they are pending. There is no indication of when the articles were submitted to the journal and how long the review process took for each one. The articles were all published at very short intervals in the first 15 days of the year and then the publications came to a standstill. The server on which the journal resides is not known. It is not known who the publisher of the journal is, or at least it is not known who and under what legal form holds the ownership rights to the journal and the site. This is information that we do not doubt will be promptly disseminated.

Other oddities are less difficult to remedy. As we anticipated, ‘gold open access’ means that it is the authors who pay so-called APCs (article processing charges) for the publication of their articles. The TIS journal does not charge APCs, but when an article is accepted, authors can make a donation to the journal.

Nowhere could we find any indication of who receives the donation on behalf of the journal or TIS. It costs money to publish a journal (even to acquire DOIs). Who pays for TIS?

But the strangest oddity is that the magazine only publishes articles signed by at least one author who is listed on the TIS list. A kind of golf club magazine in which only members of the club can write. 

To find out that only TIS members can write in the journal, you have to go to the page about formatting papers (!):

3. The editorial board of the TIS Journal

Like any self-respecting journal, the TIS Journal also has an editorial board, composed of course only of members in the Top Italian Scientists classification. The list of board members is constantly growing and changing.

The changes are not insignificant. Suffice it to say that on 8 January, as can be seen here, the journal had an editor in chief: Vito D’Andrea. A week later, the journal no longer had an editor in chief, to date the editor in chief is TIS Enrico Gherlone.

But who are the TISs crowding the editorial board?

There is Salvatore Cuzzocrea, who resigned in October as rector of the University of Messina and as president of the Conference of the Rectors of Italian Universities because of a judicial investigation into reimbursements for research activities (see here). Cuzzocrea holds the record, among board members, for the number of 167 reports on pubpeer. PubPeer is a web platform that allows users to discuss and review scientific research after publication. The site is mainly used as a whistleblowing platform to report misconduct and fraud in scientific literature. In Cuzzocrea’s case, the reports mainly concern incorrect images in articles. His first retracted article

, followed by two others, is dated 18 January 2024.

In second place among board members in terms of the number of pubpeer reports is Alessandra Bitto of the University of Messina, who counts 79, mostly for incorrect images in articles. Alessandra Bitto is co-author of 9 articles that have been retracted. Leonid Schneider wrote about the University of Messina group here and there. Francesco Margiocco wrote about it in the Italian newspaper SecoloXIX.

Members of the editorial board include Roberto Bolli, co-author of Pietro Anversa -also TIS – for whom Harvard University, in 2018 at the end of an investigation asked for the retraction of 31 articles on the use of stem cells for the regeneration of heart tissue . Bolli is co-author of 3 articles retracted by Anversa. (Retraction Watch reports that “Bolli was recently [2019] fired as editor of a journal for making homophobic comments“).

There is Domenico Ribatti one of the co-authors of Paolo Macchiarini, the surgeon sentenced in Sweden ‘to two years and six months imprisonment after being found guilty of aggravated violence against three of his patients’, starring in the Netflix series Bad Surgeon. Ribatti shares with Macchiarini an article in Nature that has been retracted (see here and here), and other 3 flagged on pub pubpeer (over a total of 18 flagged papers).

There is Francesco Trapasso one of the co-authors of cancer researcher Carlo M. Croce who now has at least 14 retractions and lawsuits to his credit, including with his lawyers (see here and in Italiano here and here). Croce, according to the TIS ranking, is the best of the best. Trapasso shares two retractions with Croce. And he also shares two with Alfredo Fusco (see here) .

Among the board members is Arrigo Cicero, who has at least 6 retractions to his credit due to multiple publication of the same paper (see here).

And also Pier Paolo Pandolfi (see here) who has 36 flagged papers on pubpeer.

The board could not fail to include a qualified representation of former ANVUR officers. There is Paolo Miccoli, former president of ANVUR and, thanks to the revolving doors, newly appointed president of the association of telematic universities. Certainly readers of roars will remember the cut-and-paste affair of the ‘theme’ to become a member of the agency.

And there is also Daniele Checchi, a former member of the ANVUR board. He was selected among the TIS thanks to his performance on Google Scholar where he has, as is often the case for economists, 500% more citations than those recorded on Scopus (which would not have allowed him to exceed the mythical threshold of 30!).

4. Rule or exception?

A handful of unfortunate incidents cannot undermine the goodness of an objective criterion such as the one underlying the TIS ranking. You don’t have to look at individual incidents, you have to look at the statistics, and the statistics say TIS is TIS.

We too looked at some statistics for the members of the TIS Journal editorial board. We focused in particular on the reports on pubpeer and in the Retraction Watch database, which contains the metadata of articles that have been subject to retraction, expression of concerns by editors, and corrections.

We photographed the board as of 8 January 2024 and cross-referenced the board members with the data available on the Retraction Watch database and the pubpeer platform. As of 8 January, 157 board members were listed.

Of these, 24 (15.3%) have at least one report on Retraction Watch. The total number of articles reported on Retraction Watch for TIS journal’s board members is 59. This means an average of 0.38 reports per capita. The 157 TIS board members account for 6.2% of Italian reports on Retraction Watch.

To get a more precise idea, let us take the full and associate professors of Italian universities on the same date (10.726+19.616=30.342) and assume that they have an average of 0.38 reports per capita on Retraction Watch. Retraction Watch should contain a total of 11.530 reports from Italian authors. Instead, it contains only 949. This means that the number of reports per capita of Italian academics is 0.03, which is an order of magnitude less than the board members of the TIS journal.

Let us now take the pubpeer data. There are 47 (29.9%) board members who have at least one report in pubpeer. The total number of reported articles is 484: each board member has on average 3.1 reported articles. Again, if Italian ordinaries and associates had the same average, articles by Italian authors would be 93.453.

One possible objection to these figures is that because TIS are the best, they are more visible and therefore subject to more stringent controls. Besides, what counts for a journal is not who is on its editorial board, but the relevance of the articles it publishes.

5. A good morning: the first article in the TIS Journal
We read the first article published by the journal:
Corrado AngeliniAdvances and new treatments are available for neuromuscular disorders and affect Quality of LifeTop Italian Scientists Journal 1(1), 2 January 2024

More than 60% of the article literally reproduces parts (mainly abstracts and conclusions) of articles already published in other journals and popular articles available on websites and signed in the vast majority of cases by other authors.

In the pdf below, you can compare the text in the TIS JOURNAL and the articles that have literally identical parts with it.

6. The moral of the story

It seems to have told the academic world inside out. Those at the top are actually those who stumble the most. It is well known that citation doping is easy, through self-citations or citation exchanges. A problem of us anthropologically cunning Italians? Yes and no.

No, because internationally we have long been aware of the problems with the rankings of highly cited scientists (see here). By now, doping problems can no longer be swept under the carpet even by companies that make bibliometric statistics their main business. The most famous one (Clarivate), which is also decisive for the ARWU ranking, has long claimed to exclude those whose numbers are too big to be true, for instance those who are overproductive. Even, in the last edition, it deleted the ranking of highly cited mathematicians because it found no way to separate dopers from the rest (see here). A bit like not running the Tour de France one year because there are doping substances circulating that are impossible to detect by doping tests.

But it is also a problem for us Italians, because unlike other countries we have embraced these criteria and made them the core of our recruitment and promotion system. So much so that in international statistics the Italian anomaly is clearly visible and puts us on the same level as nations that have also encouraged doping.

Moral of the story. The TIS list is a hall of fame? It is a discreet sign of provincialism to boast of being part of the TIS and to launch a journal without harbouring the suspicion of arriving out of time, when the toy is broken. Whoever is really top, a little bit of a stink should have smelt it, if he or she follows the scientific debate and does not live on top of a pear tree.

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