A multi-million-dollar exercise to rate research programmes in the US has resulted in controversy, with critics questioning its usefulness.
As reported by Times Higher Education online, the National Research Council's latest Database Assessment of Research Doctoral Programs - the first to be published since 1995 - includes data on more than 5,000 programmes at 212 universities across the US.
But the report, which was published last week some three years later than originally planned, does not rank universities' efforts in the same way as it did in the past. Instead of specific placings, doctoral programmes have been given a ranking within a range of positions.
The $4 million (£2.5 million) study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the universities rated by the report.
Some have welcomed the new approach. Harvey Waterman, associate dean for academic affairs in Rutgers University's Graduate School-New Brunswick, said the report brought "as much objectivity as possible to an assessment that began as a reputational ranking".
However, others were less impressed. Jacqueline Huntoon, dean of the Graduate School at Michigan Technological University, said that "the results are not rankings. The report tells us that there is a 90 per cent chance that the 'true' ranking of each of our programmes falls somewhere within the reported range."
Concern has also been expressed that, owing to the delay in publication of the report, some data used are five years out of date, and all data were collected before the recession.
"We aren't the same university or the same graduate school we were then," Professor Huntoon said.
However, she conceded that the report would be useful as a benchmark to measure future progress.
Andrew J. Szeri, dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that some data would prove useful. But he added: "I don't think the rankings form a complete picture of a school's academic excellence."