Why now? Making markets via the THE World Reputation Rankings

The 2012 Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings were released at 00.01 on 15 March by Times Higher Education via its website. It was intensely promoted via Twitter by the ‘Energizer Bunny’ of rankings, Phil Baty, and will be circulated in hard copy format to the magazine’s subscribers.

As someone who thinks there are more cons than pros related to the rankings phenomenon, I could not resist examining the outcome, of course! See below and to the right for a screen grab of the Top 20, with Harvard demolishing the others in the reputation standings.

I do have to give Phil Baty and his colleagues at Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters credit for enhancing the reputation rankings methodology. Each year their methodology gets better and better.

But, and this is a big but, I have to ask myself why is the reputation ranking coming out on 15 March 2012 when the when the survey was distributed in April/May 2011 and when the data was used in the 2011 World University Rankings, which were released in October 2011? It is not like the reputation outcome presented here is complex. The timing makes no sense, whatsoever, from an analytical angle.

However, if we think about the business of rankings, versus analytical cum methodological questions, the release of the ‘Reputation Rankings’ makes absolute sense.

First, the release of the reputation rankings now keeps the rankings agenda, and Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters, elevated in both higher education and mass media outlets. The media coverage unfolding as you read this particular entry would not be emerging if the reputation rankings were bundled into the general World University Rankings that were released back in October. It is important to note that QS has adopted the same ‘drip drip’ approach with the release of field-specific ranking outcomes, regional ranking outcomes, etc. A single annual blast in today’s ‘attention economy’ is never enough for world university rankers.

Second, and on a related note, the British Council’s Going Global 2012 conference is being held in London from 13-15 March. As the British Council put it:

More than five hundred university Presidents, Vice-Chancellors and sector leaders will be among the 1300 delegates to the British Council’s ‘Going Global 2012’ conference in March.

The conference will be the biggest ever gathering of higher education leaders. More than 80 countries will be represented, as leaders from government, academia and industry debate a new vision of international education for the 21st century.

The Times Higher Education magazine is released every Thursday (so 15 March this week), and so this event provides the firms of TSL Education Ltd., and Thomson Reuters with a captive audience of ‘movers and shakers’ for their products, and associated advertising. Times Higher Education is also an official media partner for Going Global 2012.

Make no mistake about it – there is an economic logic to releasing the reputation rankings today, and this trumps an analytical logic that should have led Times Higher Education to release the reputation outcome back in October so we could all better understand the world university ranking outcome and methodology.

More broadly, there really is no logic to the annual cycle of world rankings; if there were, funding councils worldwide would benchmark annually. But there is a clear business logic to normalizing the annual cycle of world university rankings, and this has indeed become the ‘new normal.’ But even this is not enough. Much like the development and marketing of running shoes, iPods, and fashion accessories, the informal benchmarking that has always gone on in academia has become formalized, commercialized, and splintered into distinct and constantly emerging products.

In the end, it is worth reflecting if such rankings are improving learning and research outcomes, as well as institutional innovation. And it is worth asking if the firms behind such rankings are themselves as open and transparent about their practices and agendas as they expect their research subjects (i.e. universities) to be.

Now back to those rankings. Congrats, Harvard!  But more importantly, I wonder if UW-Madison managed to beat Michigan…….oh oh.

Kris Olds

Field-specific cultures of international research collaboration

Editors’ note: how can we better understand and map out the phenomenon of international research collaboration, especially in a context where bibliometrics does a patchy job with respect to registering the activities and output of some fields/disciplines? This is one of the questions Dr. Heike Jöns (Department of Geography, Loughborough University, UK) grapples with in this informative guest entry in GlobalHigherEd. The entry draws from Dr. Jöns’ considerable experience studying forms of mobility associated with the globalization of higher education and research.

Dr. Jöns (pictured above) received her PhD at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) and spent two years as a Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the University of Nottingham (UK). She is interested in the geographies of science and higher education, with particular emphasis on transnational academic mobility.

Further responses to ‘Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities’, and Heike Jöns’ response below, are welcome at any time.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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The evaluation of research performance at European universities increasingly draws upon quantitative measurements of publication output and citation counts based on databases such as ISI Web of Knowledge, Scopus and Google Scholar (UNESCO 2010). Bibliometric indicators also inform annually published world university rankings such as the Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings that have become powerful agents in contemporary audit culture despite their methodological limitations. Both league tables introduced field-specific rankings in 2007, differentiating between the natural, life, engineering and social sciences (both rankings), medicine (Shanghai) and the arts and humanities (Times Higher).

But to what extent do bibliometric indicators represent research output and collaborative cultures in different academic fields? This blog entry responds to this important question raised by Kris Olds (2010) in his GlobalHigherEd entry titled ‘Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities‘ by discussing recent findings on field-specific research cultures from the perspective of transnational academic mobility and collaboration.

The inadequacy of bibliometric data for capturing research output in the arts and humanities has, for example, been demonstrated by Anssi Paasi’s (2005) study of international publishing spaces. Decisions about the journals that enter the respective databases, their bias towards English-language journals and their neglect of monographs and anthologies that dominate in fields dominated by individual authorship are just a few examples for the reasons of why citation indexes are not able to capture the complexity, place- and language-specificity of scholarship in the arts and humanities. Mapping the international publishing spaces in the sciences, the social sciences and the arts and humanities using ISI Web of Science data in fact suggests that the arts and humanities are less international and even more centred on the United States and Europe than the sciences (Paasi 2005: 781). Based on the analysis of survey data provided by 1,893 visiting researchers in Germany in the period 1954 to 2000, this GlobalHigherEd entry aims to challenge this partial view by revealing the hidden dimensions of international collaboration in the arts and humanities and elaborating on why research output and collaborative cultures vary not only between disciplines but also between different types of research work (for details, see Jöns 2007; 2009).

The visiting researchers under study were funded by the Humboldt Research Fellowship Programme run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Bonn, Germany). They came to Germany in order to pursue a specific research project at one or more host institutions for about a year. Striking differences in collaborative cultures by academic field and type of research work are revealed by the following three questions:

1. Could the visiting researchers have done their research project also at home or in any other country?

2. To what extent did the visiting researchers write joint publications with colleagues in Germany as a result of their research stay?

3. In which ways did the collaboration between visiting researchers and German colleagues continue after the research stay?

On question 1.

Research projects in the arts and humanities, and particularly those that involved empirical work, were most often tied to the research context in Germany. They were followed by experimental and theoretical projects in engineering and in the natural sciences, which were much more frequently possible in other countries as well (Figure 1).

Figure 1 — Possibility of doing the Humboldt research project in another country than Germany, 1981–2000 (Source: Jöns 2007: 106)

These differences in place-specificity are closely linked to different possibilities for mobilizing visiting researchers on a global scale. For example, the establishment of new research infrastructure in the physical, biological and technical sciences can easily raise scientific interest in a host country, whereas the mobilisation of new visiting researchers in the arts and humanities remains difficult as language skills and cultural knowledge are often necessary for conducting research projects in these fields. This is one reason for why the natural and technical sciences appear to be more international than the arts and humanities.

On question 2.

Joint publications with colleagues in Germany were most frequently written in physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering and the biological sciences that are all dominated by multi-authorship. Individual authorship was more frequent in mathematics and the earth sciences and most popular – but with considerable variations between different subfields – in the arts and humanities. The spectrum ranged from every second economist and social scientist, who wrote joint publications with colleagues in Germany, via roughly one third in language and cultural studies and history and every fifth in law to only every sixth in philosophy. Researchers in the arts and humanities had much more often than their colleagues from the sciences stayed in Germany for study and research prior to the Humboldt research stay (over 95% in the empirical arts and humanities compared to less than 40% in the theoretical technical sciences) as their area of specialisation often required learning the language and studying original sources or local research subjects. They therefore engaged much more closely with German language and culture than natural and technical scientists but due to the great individuality of their work, they produced not only considerably less joint publications than their apparently more international colleagues but their share of joint publications with German colleagues before and after the research stay was fairly similar (Figure 2).

Figure 2 — Joint publications of Humboldt research fellows and colleagues in Germany, 1981–2000 (Source: Jöns 2007: 107)

For these reasons, internationally co-authored publications are not suitable for evaluating the international attractiveness and orientation of different academic fields, particularly because the complexity of different types of research practices in one and the same discipline makes it difficult to establish typical collaborative cultures against which research output and collaborative linkages could be judged.

On question 3.

This is confirmed when examining continued collaboration with colleagues in Germany after the research stay. The frequency of continued collaboration did not vary significantly between disciplines but the nature of these collaborations differed substantially. Whereas regular collaboration in the natural and technical sciences almost certainly implied the publication of multi-authored articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals, continued interaction in the arts and humanities, and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, often involved activities beyond the co-authorship of journal articles. Table 1 documents some of these less well-documented dimensions of international research collaboration, including contributions to German-language scientific journals and book series as well as refereeing for German students, researchers and the funding agencies themselves.



Table 1 — Activities of visiting researchers in Germany after their research stay (in % of Humboldt research fellows 1954-2000; Source: Jöns 2009: 327)

The differences in both place-specificity and potential for co-authorship in different research practices can be explained by their particular spatial ontology. First, different degrees of materiality and immateriality imply varying spatial relations that result in typical patterns of place-specificity and ubiquity of research practices as well as of individual and collective authorship. Due to the corporeality of researchers, all research practices are to some extent physically embedded and localised. However, researchers working with physically embedded material research objects that might not be moved easily, such as archival material, field sites, certain technical equipment, groups of people and events, may be dependent on accessing a particular site or local research context at least once. Those scientists and scholars, who primarily deal with theories and thoughts, are in turn as mobile as the embodiment of these immaterialities (e.g., collaborators, computers, books) allows them to be. Theoretical work in the natural sciences, including, for example, many types of mathematical research, thus appears to be the most ‘ubiquitous’ subject: Its high share of immaterial thought processes compared to relatively few material resources involved in the process of knowledge production (sometimes only pen and paper) would often make it possible, from the perspective of the researchers, to work in a number of different places (Figure 1, above).

Second, the constitutive elements of research vary according to their degree of standardisation. Standardisation results from the work and agreement previously invested in the classification and transformation of research objects. A high degree of standardisation would mean that the research practice relies on many uniform terms, criteria, formulas and data, components and materials, methods, processes and practices that are generally accepted in the particular field of academic work. Field sites, for example, might initially show no signs of standardisation, whereas laboratory equipment such as test tubes may have been manufactured on the basis of previous – and then standardised – considerations and practices. The field site may be unique, highly standardised laboratory equipment may be found at several sites to which the networks of science have been extended, thereby offering greater flexibility in the choice of the research location. In regard to research practices with a higher degree of immateriality, theoretical practices in the natural and technical sciences show a higher degree of standardisation (e.g., in terms of language) when compared to theoretical and argumentative-interpretative work in the arts and humanities and thus are less place-specific and offer more potential for co-authorship (Figures 1 and 2).

The resulting two dimensional matrix on the spatial relations of different research practices accommodates the empirically observed differences of both the place-specificity of the visiting researchers’ projects and their resulting joint publications with colleagues in Germany (Figure 3):

Figure 3 — A two-dimensional matrix on varying spatial relations of different research practices (Source: Jöns 2007: 109)

Empirical work, showing a high degree of materiality and a low degree of standardisation, is most often dependent on one particular site, followed by argumentative-interpretative work, which is characterised by a similar low degree of standardisation but a higher degree of immateriality. Experimental (laboratory) work, showing a high degree of both materiality and standardisation, can often be conducted in several (laboratory) sites, while theoretical work in the natural sciences, involving both a high degree of immateriality and standardisation is most rarely tied to one particular site. The fewest joint publications were written in argumentative-interpretative work, where a large internal (immaterial) research context and a great variety of arguments from different authors in possibly different languages complicate collaboration on a specific topic. Involving an external (material) and highly standardised research context, the highest frequency of co- and multi-authorship was to be found in experimental (laboratory) work. In short, the more immaterial and standardised the research practice, the lower is the place-specificity of one’s work and the easier it would be to work at home or elsewhere; and the more material and standardised the research practice, the more likely is collaboration through co- and multi-authorship.

Based on this work, it can be concluded – in response to two of Kris Olds’ (2010) key questions – that international research collaboration on a global scale can be mapped – if only roughly – for research practices characterised by co- and multi-authorship in internationally peer-reviewed English language journals as the required data is provided by citation databases (e.g., Wagner and Leydesdorff 2005; Adams et al. 2007; Leydesdorff and Persson 2010; Matthiessen et al. 2010; UNESCO 2010). When interpreting such mapping exercises, however, one needs to keep in mind that the data included in ISI Web of Knowledge, Scopus and Google Scholar do itself vary considerably.

Other research practices require different research methods such as surveys and interviews and thus can only be mapped from specific perspectives such as individual institutions or groups of researchers (for the application of bibliometrics to individual journals in the arts and humanities, see Leydesdorff and Salah 2010). It might be possible to create baseline studies that help to judge the type and volume of research output and international collaboration against typical patterns in a field of research but the presented case study has shown that the significance of specific research locations, of individual and collective authorship, and of different types of transnational collaboration varies not only between academic fields but also between research practices that crisscross conventional disciplinary boundaries.

In the everyday reality of departmental research evaluation this means that in fields such as geography, a possible benchmark of three research papers per year may be easily produced in most fields of physical geography and some fields of human geography (e.g. economic and social) whereas the nature of research practices in historical and cultural geography, for example, might make it difficult to maintain such a high research output over a number of subsequent years. Applying standardised criteria of research evaluation to the great diversity of publication and collaboration cultures inevitably bears the danger of leading to a standardisation of academic knowledge production.

Heike Jöns

References

Adams J, Gurney K and Marshall S 2007 Patterns of international collaboration for the UK and leading partners Evidence Ltd., Leeds

Jöns H 2007 Transnational mobility and the spaces of knowledge production: a comparison of global patterns, motivations and collaborations in different academic fields Social Geography 2 97-114  Accessed 23 September 2010

Jöns H 2009 ‘Brain circulation’ and transnational knowledge networks: studying long-term effects of academic mobility to Germany, 1954–2000 Global Networks 9 315-38

Leydesdorff L and Persson O 2010 Mapping the geography of science: distribution patterns and networks of relations among cities and institutes Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 6 1622-1634

Leydesdorff L and Salah A A A 2010 Maps on the basis of the Arts &Humanities Citation Index: the journals Leonardo and Art Journal, and “Digital Humanities” as a topic Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 787-801

Matthiessen C W, Schwarz A W and Find S 2010 World cities of scientific knowledge: systems, networks and potential dynamics. An analysis based on bibliometric indicators Urban Studies 47 1879-97

Olds K 2010 Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities GlobalHigherEd 20 July 2010  Accessed 23 September 2010

Paasi A 2005 Globalisation, academic capitalism, and the uneven geographies of international journal publishing spaces Environment and Planning A 37 769-89

UNESCO 2010 World Social Science Report: Knowledge Divides UNESCO, Paris

Wagner C S and Leydesdorff L 2005 Mapping the network of global science: comparing international co-authorships from 1990 to 2000 International Journal of Technology and Globalization 1 185–208


Rankings: a case of blurry pictures of the academic landscape?

Editors’ note: this guest entry has been kindly contributed by Pablo Achard (University of Geneva).  After a PhD in particle physics at CERN and the University of Geneva (Switzerland), Pablo Achard (pictured to the right) moved to the universities of Marseilles (France) then Antwerp (Belgium) and Brandeis (MA) to pursue research in computational neurosciences. He currently works at the University of Geneva where he supports the Rectorate on bibliometrics and strategic planning issues. Our thanks to Dr. Achard for this ‘insiders’ take on the challenges of making sense of world university rankings. 

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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If the national rankings of universities can be traced back in the 19th century, international rankings appeared somewhere in the beginning of the 21st century [1]. Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s and Times Higher Education’s (THE) rankings were among the pioneers and remain among the most visible ones. But you might have heard of similar league tables designed by the CSIC, the University of Leiden, the HEEACT, QS, the University of Western Australia, RatER, Mines Paris Tech, etc. Such a proliferation certainly responds to a high demand. But what are they worth? I argue here that rankings are blurry pictures of the academic landscape. As such, they are much better than complete blindness but should be used with great care.

Blurry pictures

The image of the academic landscape grabbed by the rankings is always a bit out-of-focus. This is improving with time and we should acknowledge the rankers who make considerable efforts to improve the sharpness. Nonetheless, the sharp image remains an impossible to reach ideal.

First of all, it is very difficult to get clean and comparable data on such a large scale. The reality is always grey, the action of counting is black or white. Take such a central element as a “researcher”. What should you count? Heads or full-time equivalents? Full-time equivalents based on their contracts or the effective time spent at the university? Do you include PhD “students”? Visiting scholars? Professors on sabbaticals? Research engineers? Retired professors who still run a lab? Deans who don’t? What do you do with researchers affiliated with non-university research organizations still loosely connected to a university (think of Germany or France here)? And how do you collect the data?

This toughness to obtain clean and comparable data is the main reason for the lack of any good indicator about teaching quality. To do it properly, one would need to evaluate the level of knowledge of the students upon graduation, and possibly compare it with their level when they entered the university. To this aim, OECD is launching a project called AHELO, but it is still in its pilot phase. In the meantime, some rankers use poor proxies (like the percentage of international students) while others focus their attention on research outcomes only.

Second, some indicators are very sensitive to “noise” due to small statistics. This is the case for the number of Nobel prizes used by the Shanghai’s ranking. No doubt that having 20 of them in your faculty says something about its quality. But having one, obtained years ago, for a work partly or fully done elsewhere? Because of the long tailed distribution of the university rankings, such a unique event won’t push a university ranked 100 into the top 10, but a university ranked 500 can win more than a hundred places.

This dynamic seemed to occur in the most recent THE ranking. In their new methodology, the “citation impact” of a university counts for one third of the final note. Not many details were given on how this impact is calculated. But the description on the THE’s website and the way this impact is calculated by Thomson Reuters – who provides the data to THE – in its commercial product InCites. makes me believe that they used the so-called “Leiden crown indicator”. This indicator is a welcome improvement to the raw ratio of citations per publications since it takes into account the citation behaviours of the different disciplines. But it suffers from instability if you look at a small set of publications or at publications in fields where you don’t expect many citations [2]: the denominator can become very small, leading to rocket high ratios. This is likely what happened with the Alexandria University. According to this indicator, this Alexandria ranks 4th in the world, surpassed only by Caltech, MIT and Princeton. This is an unexpected result for anyone who knows the world research landscape [3].

Third, it is well documented that the act of measuring triggers the act of manipulating the measure. And this is made easy when the data are provided by the university themselves, as for the THE or QS rankings. One can only be suspicious when reading the cases emphasized by Bookstein and colleagues. “For whatever reason, the quantity THES assigned to the University of Copenhagen staff-student ratio went from 51 (the sample median) in 2007 to 100 (a score attained by only 12 other schools in the top 200) […] Without this boost, Copenhagen’s […] ranking would have been 94 instead of 51. Another school with a 100 student-staff rating in 2009, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, rose from the value of 68 just a year earlier, […] thus earning a ranking of 28 instead of 48.”

Pictures of a landscape are taken from a given point of view

But let’s suppose that the rankers can improve their indicators to obtain perfectly focused images. Let’s imagine that we have clean, robust and hardly manipulable data to rely on. Would the rankings give a neutral picture of the academic landscape? Certainly not. There is no such thing as “neutrality” in any social construct.

Some rankings are built with a precise output in mind. The most laughable example of this was Mines Paris Tech’s ranking, placing itself and four other French “grandes écoles” in the top 20. This is probably the worst flaw of any ranking. But other types of biases are always present, even if less visible.

Most rankings are built with a precise question in mind. Let’s look at the evaluation of the impact of research. Are you interested in finding the key players, in which case the volume of citations is one way to go? Or are you interested in finding the most efficient institutions, in which case you would normalize the citations to some input (number of articles or number of researchers or budget)? Different questions need different indicators, hence different rankings. This is the approach followed by Leiden which publishes several rankings at a time. However this is not the sexiest and media-friendly approach.

Finally, all rankings are built with a model of what a good university is in mind. “The basic problem is that there is no definition of the ideal university”, a point made forcefully today by University College London’s Vice-Chancellor. Often, the Harvard model is the implicit model. In this case, getting Harvard on top is a way to check for “mistakes” in the design of the methodology. But the missions of the university are many. One usually talks about the production (research) and the dissemination (teaching) of knowledge, together with a “third mission” towards society that can in turn have many different meanings, from the creation of spin-offs to the reduction of social inequities. For these different missions, different indicators are to be used. The salary of fresh graduates is probably a good indicator to judge MBAs and certainly a bad one for liberal art colleges.

To pursue the metaphor with photography, every single snapshot is taken from a given point of view and with a given aim. Point-of-views and aims can be visible as it is the case in artistic photography. They can also pretend to neutrality, as in photojournalism. But this neutrality is wishful thinking. The same applies for rankings.

Useful pictures

Rankings are nevertheless useful pictures. Insiders who have a comprehensive knowledge of the global academic landscape understandably laugh at rankings’ flaws. However the increase in the number of rankings and in their use tells us that they fill a need. Rankings can be viewed as the dragon of New Public Management and accountability assaulting the ivory tower of disinterested knowledge. They certainly participate to a global shift in the contract between society and universities. But I can hardly believe that the Times would spend thousands if not millions for such a purpose.

What then is the social use of rankings? I think they are the most accessible vision of the academic landscape for millions of “outsiders”. The CSIC ranks around 20,000 (yes twenty thousand!) higher education institutions. Who can expect everyone to be aware of their qualities?  Think of young students, employers, politicians or academics from not-so-well connected universities. Is everyone in the Midwest able to evaluate the quality of research at a school strangely named Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich?

Even to insiders, rankings tell us something. Thanks to improvements in the picture’s quality and to the multiplication of point-of-views, rankings form an image that is not uninteresting. If a university is regularly in the top 20, this is something significant. You can expect to find there one of the best research and teaching environment. If it is regularly in the top 300, this is also significant. You can expect to find one of the few universities where the “global brain market” takes place. If a country – like China – increases its share of good universities over time, this is significant and that a long-term ‘improvement’ (at least in the direction of what is being ranked as important) of its higher education system is under way.

Of course, any important decision concerning where to study, where to work or which project to embark on must be taken with more criteria than rankings. As one would never go for mountain climbing based solely on blurry snapshots of the mountain range, one should not use rankings as a unique source of information about universities.

Pablo Achard


Notes

[1] See The Great Brain Race. How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, Ben Wildavsky, Princeton Press 2010; and more specifically its chapter 4 “College rankings go global”.

[2] The Leiden researchers have recently decided to adopt a more robust indicator for their studies http://arxiv.org/abs/1003.2167 But whatever the indicator used, the problem will remain for small statistical samples.

[3] See recent discussions on the University Ranking Watch blog for more details on this issue.