In Beijing last month, research data experts Thomson Reuters hosted a conference with the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China on international university evaluation. Some 350 Chinese university administrators, research directors and librarians gathered to hear a presentation on the new Times Higher Education World University Rankings (which will take all its data from Thomson Reuters), as well as papers from experts including Lui Nian Cai, of the School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Jonathan Adams, director, research evaluation, at Thomson Reuters.
Zheng Guoan, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, explained that China was making "unremitting efforts to build a large, well-structured, high-quality science and technology workforce". He said that universities were key to the drive, "therefore it is necessary to establish a scientific, rational evaluation system for universities, as well as for individual scientists".
As part of this, the Chinese have clearly embraced rankings. Delegates left me in no doubt as to the power and influence of THE's world rankings, and our responsibility, given how seriously the results are taken, to be as rigorous as possible in developing the new system.
But the event also left me with a strong sense that THE must be as open as possible about what rankings cannot, and do not, do. Those who rank must be frank in explaining the limitations of their data, the proxies they employ, the compromises they make - and, most of all, they must be clear that rankings can be only a brief and relatively crude overview of a university's place in the world.
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings. firstname.lastname@example.org
For the latest World University Rankings news, debate and social networking, see www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/worlduniversityrankings2010.