New weights and measures throw up a few surprises

Phil Baty looks at the rankings winners and losers and explains how weightings have affected results

September 16, 2010

The new methodology used to compile the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings is more reliant on evidence and less on reputation, and has produced a number of eye-catching results. Here we look at some of the outliers.

The University of Sussex, Durham University and Royal Holloway, University of London do very well under the new rankings.

This is primarily due to excellent scores for "research influence" (normalised average citations per paper), which is given the highest single weighting of the 13 indicators used in our new methodology (32.5 per cent).

The three institutions are part of a large multi-country research programme in particle physics, and Durham and Sussex are also part of an international astronomy project, so all benefit from the high number of citations that the papers produced by these initiatives receive.

Simon Pratt, project manager for institutional research at Thomson Reuters, who analysed the data for the rankings, said: "The influence of this small group of very highly cited papers is particularly strong given the relatively small nature of these universities." Royal Holloway also benefits from a good score for international diversity thanks to its high number of overseas staff and students.

Surprising omission

Perhaps one of the most surprising results is that the University of Warwick does not make the top 200 list, falling just outside. Its data are fairly consistent across all indicators, but its low score in citation impact is probably the reason why it has dropped out of the table.

Warwick does make the world top 50 for arts and humanities, coming in 44th place, having done particularly well in our reputational survey (teaching and research) and citation impact in this area.

Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters, who oversaw the data analysis for the rankings, said: "Given the richer data supplied and the careful approach taken to get appropriate weightings, it isn't surprising that we get changes and that some of them are quite marked.

"That said, I think most people would raise an eyebrow at the absence of Warwick from the top 200."

He added: "In each country there are anomalies. This tells us that more work is needed to reflect the true reality...for all institutions. The devil is in the subject-level detail, and we need to burrow more thoroughly down to that level."

Classical comeback

Alexandria University is Egypt's only representative in the global top 200, in joint 147th place.

Its position, rubbing shoulders with the world's elite, is down to an exceptional score of 99.8 in the "research-influence" category, which is virtually on a par with Harvard University.

Alexandria, which counts Ahmed H. Zewail, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, among its alumni, clearly produces some strong research. But it is a cluster of highly cited papers in theoretical physics and mathematics - and more controversially, the high output from one scholar in one journal - that gives it such a high score.

Mr Pratt said: "The citation rates for papers in these fields may not appear exceptional when looking at unmodified citation counts; however, they are as high as 40 times the benchmark for similar papers.

"The effect of this is particularly strong given the relatively low number of papers the university publishes overall."

In general, technology-led institutions have done remarkably well.

This could reflect the fact that these rankings for the first time use a number of indicators of institutional income, which favour those most heavily involved in the more expensive high-technology disciplines.

Although the citations data are normalised by subject, Thomson Reuters is keen in future to collect more subject-level data to allow greater normalisation across the full range of indicators.

Mr Pratt said: "It may be that these institutions' activities in high-performance subjects that are well funded with high staffing levels and output activity are still not being fully balanced by subjects such as the humanities and social sciences.

"We would like to differentiate the performance of different subjects to identify relative performance across all areas. However, it was not possible to collect subject-specific data from all institutions this year and this subject normalisation was not possible for many of the indicators."

He added: "This modification will better reflect the performance of multidisciplinary universities and those with a strong focus on non-science subjects."

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