Data bite: who punches above their weight for research prowess?

A snapshot of World University Rankings data gives some interesting results on efficiency 

November 2, 2017

The UK is often referred to as a research system that “punches about its weight” compared with other nations when it comes to the amount of high-quality research it produces.

A recent report commissioned by the UK government reiterated this point: despite having only 2.7 per cent of the global share of research and development expenditure, the UK has 15.2 per cent of highly cited articles.

But do data from Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings also back this up, and what other countries appear to produce a large amount of excellent research despite having a smaller share of resources?

Although the rankings data cover only the elite institutions globally, a snapshot of efficiency can be produced by looking at metrics on the citation impact and research productivity of each country’s ranked universities and comparing this with the amount of money that institutions have at their disposal.

From these metrics, it is possible to devise an “efficiency score” that reveals some intriguing results.

Top of the list, excluding countries with fewer than 10 universities in the ranking, is the Netherlands, with an “efficiency score” of 140 – some distance ahead of other nations.

Much of this score could be attributed to the fact that its research institutions all occupy the upper reaches of the World University Rankings, but the country has previously been pinpointed as having a highly focused system that others want to emulate: even among other European countries with a relatively small population, its research quality comes top of the pile.

Sweden, another smaller research system that is relatively successful, comes second – but only narrowly ahead of Australia, which the 2018 rankings results showed had chalked up a marked improvement in both citation impact and productivity.

The UK comes fourth in the list, with an efficiency score of 103, which does appear to back up the other data on its performance given that it is the first country with a population of more than 50 million on the list.

Other large countries fare less well, including notably the US, although again this could be linked to the distribution of its universities in the ranking, which number more than 150.

Meanwhile, South Korea, a star performer when it comes to improvements in research quality in recent years, stands out as having a low efficiency score (39), perhaps because of the large amount of money being invested in a system that is still on the rise.

However, it still comes out much better than other Asian nations: China (efficiency score 30), India (17) and Japan (16) are all outside the top 12.

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