World in motion: 3 December 2009

December 3, 2009

"There's no reason why a university that specialises in the sciences should have an advantage over one that specialises in the social sciences."

So says "Shirley", one of more than 200 readers who have joined the online debate on the future of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, writes Phil Baty. By using a methodology that disadvantages the social sciences, Shirley says, the rankings indicated "that sciences are worth more to the world, which is very controversial".

Her point is well made and is one of the most serious criticisms of our former rankings methodology. The matter is typified by the case of the London School of Economics.

"I find it absurd that LSE is ranked 67th," says one poster. "Something must be done to raise LSE's rank to a level that matches the quality of its education," says another.

Indeed, judging by the results of the UK's 2008 research assessment exercise, the LSE is up there with Oxbridge, University College London and Imperial College London, but this was not reflected in our old rankings - a result of the way that research quality was measured.

It took the total number of citations for all papers published by an institution and divided it by the number of full-time equivalent staff. But this took no account of different disciplines' dramatically different citation volumes and favoured the hard sciences.

Fixing this flaw is top of the agenda as we develop a more rigorous and transparent methodology with our new rankings partner, Thomson Reuters. Its citation databases cover 12,000 of the highest-impact journals and more than 110,000 conference proceedings, so it is well placed to help us to ensure that the methods we use in the 2010 rankings are as robust as possible.

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