Sunday, 24 July 2016

University Ranking Watch: How to win citations and rise in the rankings


How to win citations and rise in the rankings

A large part of the academic world has either been congratulating itself on performing well in the latest Times Higher Education  (THE) world rankings,
the data for which is provided by Thomson Reuters (TR), or complaining
that only large injections of public money will keep their universities
from falling into the great pit of the unranked.

Some, however, have been baffled by some of the placings reported by THE
this year. Federico Santa Maria Technical University in Chile is
allegedly the fourth best university in Latin America, Scuola Normale
Superiore di Pisa the best in Italy and Turkish universities are
apparently the rising stars of the academic world.

When there is a a university that appears to be punching above its
weight the cause often turns out to be the citations indicator

Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa is 63rd in the world with an overall score of 61.9 but a citations score of 96.4.

Royal Holloway, University of London is 118th in the world with an overall score of 53 but a citations score of 98.9

The University of California Santa Cruz is top of the world for citations with an overall score of 53.7 and 100 for citations

Bogazici University is 139th in the world with an overall score of 51.1 and a citations score of 96.8.

Federico Santa Maria Technical University in Valparaiso is in the
251-175 band so the total score is not given although it would be easy
enough to work out. It has a score of 99.7 for citations.

So what is going on?

The problem lies with various aspects of Thomson Reuters' methodology.

First they use field normalisation. That means that they do not simply
count the number of citations but compare the number of citations in 250
fields with the world average in each field. Not only that, but they
compare each year in which the paper is cited with the world average of
citations for that year.

The rationale for this is that the number  of citations and the rapidity
with which papers are cited vary from field to field. A paper reporting
a cure for cancer or the discovery of a new particle will be cited
hundreds of times within weeks. A paper in philosophy, economics or
history may languish for years before anyone takes notice. John Muth's work on rational expectations
was hardly noticed or cited for years before eventually starting a
revolution in economic theory. So universities should be compared to the
average for fields and years. Otherwise, those that are strong in the
humanities and social sciences will be penalised.

Up to a point this is not a bad idea. But it does assume that all
disciplines are equally valuable and demanding. But if the world has
decided that it will fund medical research or astrophysics and support
journals and pay researchers to read and cite other researchers' papers
rather than media studies or education, then this is perhaps something
rankers and data collectors should take account of.

In any case, by normalising for so many fields and then throwing
normalisation by year into the mix, TR increase the likelihood of
statistical anomalies. If someone can get a few dozen citations within a
couple of years after publication in a field where citations,
especially early ones, average below one a year then this could give an
enormous boost to a university's citation score. That is precisely what
happened with Alexandria University in 2010. Methodological tweaking has
mitigated the risk to some extent but not completely. A university
could also get a big boost by getting credit, no matter how undeserved,
for a breakthrough paper or a review that is widely cited.

So let's take a look at some of the influential universities in the 2014
THE rankings. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (SNSP) is a small
research intensive institution that might not even meet the criteria to
be ranked by TR. Its output is modest, 2,407 publications in the Web of
Science core collection between 2009 and 2013, although for a small
institution that is quite good.

One of those publications is 'Observation of a new boson...' in Physics Letters B in September 2012, which has been cited 1,631 times.

The paper has 2,896 "authors", whom I counted by looking for semicolons
in the "find" box, affiliated to 228 institutions. Five of them are from

To put it crudely, SSNP is making an "authorship" contribution of 0.17 %
 to the paper but getting 100% of the citation credit, as does every
other contributor. Perhaps its researchers are playing a leading role in
the Large Hadron Collider project or perhaps it has made a
disproportionate financial contribution but TR provide no reason to
think so.

The University of the Andes, supposedly the second best university in
Latin America, is also a contributor to this publication, as is Panjab
University, supposedly the second best institution in the Indian

Meanwhile, Royal Holloway, University of London has contributed to
"Observation of a new particle...' in the same journal and issue. This
has received 1,734 citations and involved  2,932 authors from 267
institutions, along with Tokyo Metropolitan University, Federico Santa
Maria Technical University, Middle Eastern Technical University and
Bogazici University.

The University of California Santa Cruz is one of 119 institutions that
contributed to the 'Review of particle physics...'  2010 which has been
cited 3,739 times to date. Like all the other contributors it gets full
credit for all those citations.

It is not just the number of citations that boosts citation impact
scores but also their occurrence within a year or two of publication so
that the number of citations is much greater than the average for that
field and those years.

The proliferation of papers with hundreds of authors is not confined to
physics. There are several examples from medicine and genetics as well.

At this point, the question arises why not divide the citations for each
paper among the authors of the paper? This is an option available in
the Leiden Ranking so it should not be beyond TR's technical

Or why not stop counting multi - authored publications when they exceed a certain quota of authors? This is exactly what TR did earlier this year
when collecting data for its new highly cited researchers lists.
Physics papers with more than 30 institutional affiliations were
omitted, a very sensible procedure that should have been applied across
the board.

So basically, one route to success in the rankings is to get into a multi - collaborator mega - cited project.

But that is not enough in itself. There are hundreds of universities
contributing to these publications. But not all of them  reap such
disproportionate benefits. It is important not to publish too much. A
dozen LHC papers will do wonders if you publish 400 or 500  papers a
year. Four thousand a year and it will make little difference. One
reason for the success of otherwise obscure institutions is that the
number of papers by which the citations are divided is small.

So why on earth are TR using a method that produces such laughable
results? Lets face it, if any other ranker put SNS Pisa, Federico Santa
Maria or Bogaziii at the top of its flagship indicator we would go deaf
from the chorus of academic tut-tutting.

TR, I suspect, are doing this because this method is identical or nearly
identical to that used for their InCites system for evaluating
individual academics within institutions, which appears very lucrative,
and they do not want the expense and inconvenience of recalculating

Also perhaps, TR have become so enamoured of the complexity and
sophistication of their operations that they really do think that they
have actually discovered pockets of excellence in unlikely places that
nobody else has the skill or the resources to even notice.

But we have not finished. There is one  more element in TR's distinctive
methodology and that is its regional modification introduced by
Thompson Reuters in 2011.

This means that the normalised citation impact score of the university
is divided by the square root of the impact score of  the country in
which it is located. A university located in a low scoring country will
get a bonus that will be greater the lower the country's impact score.
This would clearly be an advantage to countries like Chile, India and

Every year there are more multi - authored multi -cited papers. It would
not be surprising if university presidents start scanning the author
lists of publications like the Review of Particle Physics, send out
recruitment letters and get ready for ranking stardom.

University Ranking Watch: How to win citations and rise in the rankings

No comments:

Post a Comment