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The president and vice-president of the Italian National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes (ANVUR) claim that Italy’s rise in international research-impact rankings is a real effect (P. Miccoli and R. I. Rumiati Nature574, 486; 2019), and not (as we have argued) the result of Italian scholars citing one another’s articles more heavily (see Nature http://doi.org/dcgj; 2019). We question their evidence for this claim.