BRASILIA – At the center of President Dilma Rousseff's education policy is a plan to send 101,000 students abroad by 2015.

Launched in 2011, the Science Without Borders program selects candidates and covers school fees and living costs for them to study in undergraduate programs abroad, with the long-term goal of increasing the nation's competitiveness and entrepreneurship.

Brazilian universities submit their top students for eligibility. Out of the 101,000 scholarships, 75,000 are paid for by the government and the rest by the private sector.

However, the goal of 101,000 students is considered unrealistic by many, and indeed the program has been having a hard time finding enough eligible students.

The department within the Brazilian Ministry of Education devoted to the evaluation and expansion of higher education in Brazil – Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) – is one of the agencies involved in selecting students for the program.

It has now been revealed that the Ministry of Education was fudging the numbers of Science without Borders (SWB) by including scholarship students already receiving grants from CAPES.

Before SWB was launched, CAPES awarded 4,000 grants a year. Their scholarships and the SWB grants are similar, but selection criteria and international acceptance differ greatly. Also, SWB offers a narrower range of fields, excluding almost all humanities. The program targets students studying science, technology, math and engineering.

About 22,646 SWB grants have been awarded since the program was launched in 2011, but it has now been revealed that a significant portion of the grants had been awarded to students that had not gone through the SWB process.

In 2012, 280 students were selected for the program. At least 60 of these students had their names listed on the SWB website as being grant recipients while not actually being in the program. We spoke to 25 of these students in eight countries. Many of them were surprised to be named as grant recipients on the SWB website, as they had not even applied for the program. Three of them said they had actually been rejected by SWB.

Quantity, not quality

This is not the only way that Brazil is looking more scholarly than it really is.

Brazilian scientific production is rising, as measured by the number of academic papers published in scientific journals. But the quality of the work has not increased with the rise of scientific publications.

According to SCImago, a platform that ranks the scientific influence of scholarly journals, in 2011, Brazil was ranked 13th globally against 17th in 2001 – an achievement that has been celebrated in scientific spheres all around the country.

In 2011, Brazilian researchers published three and half times more articles than they did in 2001. But the problem is that the quality of these papers have decreased, something which can be measured by the number of times each article is cited by others. For quality of articles, Brazil fell from 31st place in 2001 to 40th in 2011. Meanwhile, China and Russia, who both fare very poorly in quality rankings, managed to each climb a few positions. In this regard, the best-ranked countries are Switzerland and Denmark.

According to experts, one of the reason there is a jump in quantity of scientific articles while there is a fall in citations is the increase in the number of Brazilian scholarly journals – from 62 to 270 journals in ten years.

The problem is that scientific articles published in Brazilian journals have a small impact, in part because of the language barrier. Only 16 of these journals received one or more citations per article, while Nature, for instance received about 36 citations per article.