Journal ranking biased against interdisciplinary research

The widespread use of rankings of journals in research
institutes and universities creates a disadvantage for interdisciplinary
research in assessment exercises such as the British Research Excellence
. This is the conclusion of a paper presented at the 2011 Annual
Conference of the Society for the Social Studies of Science
in Cleveland (US) by
Ismael Rafols (SPRU, Sussex University), Loet Leydesdorff (University of
Amsterdam) and Alice O’Hare, Paul Nightingale and Andy Stirling (all SPRU,
Sussex University). The study is the first quantitative proof that researchers
working at the boundaries between different research fields may be
disadvantaged compared with monodisciplinary colleagues. The study argues that
citation analysis, if properly applied, is a better measurement instrument than
a ranked journal list.


The study is quite relevant for research management at
universities and research institutes. Journal lists have become a very popular
management tool. In a lot of departments, researchers are obliged to publish in
a limited set of journals. Some departments, for example in economics, have
even been reorganized on the basis of having published in such a list. The way
these lists have been composed does vary. Sometimes a group of experts decides
whether a journal belongs to the list, sometimes the Journal Impact Factor
published by ISI/Thomson Reuters is the determining factor.


The study by Rafols et al. has analyzed one such list: the
ranked journal list used by the British Association of Business Schools. This
list is based on a mix of citation statistics and peer review. It ranks
scholarly journals in business and management studies in five categories.
“Modest standard journals” are category 1, “world elite journals” are category
4*. This scheme reflects the experience researchers have with the Research
Assessment Exercise categories. The ranked journal list is meant to be used
widely for a variety of management goals. It is used as an advice for
researchers about the best venue for their manuscripts. Libraries are supposed
to use it in their acquisition policies. And last but not least, it is used in
research assessments and personnel evaluations. Although the actual use of the
list is an interesting research topic in itself, we can safely assume that it
has had a serious impact on the researchers in the British business schools


The study shows first of all that the position of a journal
in the ranked list correlates negatively with the extent of interdisciplinarity
of the journal. In other words, the higher the ranking, the more narrow its
disciplinary focus. (The study has used a number of indicators for
interdisciplinarity by which different aspects of what it means to be
interdisciplinary have been captured.) Rewarding researchers to publish first
of all in the ranked journal list may therefore discourage interdisciplinary


The study confirms this effect by comparing business and
management studies to innovation studies. Both fields are subjected to the same
evaluation regime in the Research Excellence Framework. Intellectually, they
are very close. However, they differ markedly with respect to their
interdisciplinary nature. Researchers in business schools have a more
traditional publishing behaviour than their innovation studies colleagues. The
research units in innnovation studies are consistently more interdisciplinary
than the business and management schools.


Of course, publication behaviour is shaped by a variety of
influences. Peer review may be biased against interdisciplinary work because it
is more difficult to assess its quality. Many top journals are not eager to
publish interdisciplinary work. This study is the first to show convincingly
that these already existing biases tend to be made even stronger by the use of
ranked journal lists as a tool in research management. The study confirms this
effect by comparing the performance based on the ranked journal list with a
citation analysis. In the latter, the innovation studies research is not
punished by its more interdisciplinary character which does happen in an
assessment on the basis of the journal list. The paper concludes with a
discussion of the negative implications in terms of funding and acquiring
resources for research groups working at the boundaries of different fields.


The paper will be published in a forthcoming issue of Research Policy and has been awarded the best paper at the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy in September 2011.


Reference: Ismael Rafols, Loet Leydesdorff,
Alice O’Hare, Paul Nightingale, & Andy Stirling, “How journal rankings can
suppress interdisciplinary research. A comparison between innovation studies
and business & management,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the
Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), Cleveland, OH, Nov. 2011;
available at

Harvard no longer number 1 in ranking

Recently, the new Times Higher Education World University Rankings
2011-2012 saw the light. The ranking revealed that Harvard University is no
longer number one on the list. Incidentally, the differences with Caltech – now
highest – are minimal. The main reason for Caltech’s rise are the extra
revenues it drew out of industry. Caltech’s income increased by 16%, thereby
outclassing most other universities. Harvard scored a bit better when it comes
to the educational environment. Other universities also rose on the list as a
result of a successful campaign to obtain (more) external financing. The London
School of Economics
, for example, moved from 86 to 47. The top of the ranking
did not change that drastically though. Rich US-based universities still dominate
the list. 7 out of ten universities highest on the list, and one third of the
top 200, are located in the US.

This illustrates the THE ranking’s sensitivity to slight
differences between indicators that, taken together, shape the order of the
ranking. The ranking is based on a mix of many different indicators. There is
no standardized way to combine these indicators, and therefore there inevitably
is a certain arbitrariness to the process. In addition, the THE ranking is
partly based on results of a global survey. This survey invites researchers and
professors to assess the reputation of universities. One of the unwanted
effects of this method is that well-known universities are more likely to be
positively assessed than less popular universities. Highly visible forms of maltreatment
and scandals may also influence survey results.

This year, the ranking’s sensitivity to the ways in which
different indicators are combined is aptly illustrated by the position of the
Dutch universities. The Netherlands are at number 3, with 12 universities in
the top 200 and 4 in the first 100 of the world. Given the size of the country,
this is a remarkable achievement. The result is partly caused by a strong
international orientation of the Dutch universities, and partly by previous
investments in research and education. But just as important is the weight
given to the performances of the social sciences and humanities in a number of
indicators. Compared to last year, the total performance of Dutch universities
most likely did not increase that much. A more likely explanation is that the profile
of activities and impact are better covered by the THE ranking.

The latest THE ranking does make clear that size is not the
most important determinant in positioning universities. Small specialized universities
can end up quite high on the list.

Still using the Hirsch index? Don’t!

“My research: > 185 papers, h-index 40.” A
random quote from a curriculum vitae in the World Wide Web. Sometimes,
researchers love their Hirsch index, better known as the h-index. But what does
the measure actually mean? Is it a reliable indicator of scientific impact?


Our colleagues Ludo Waltman and Nees Jan van
Eck have studied the mathematical and statistical properties of the h-index.
Their conclusion: the h-index can produce inconsistent results. For this
reason, it is actually not the reliable measure of scientific impact that most
users think it is. As a leading scientometric institute, we have therefore
published the advice to all universities, funders, and academies of science to
abandon the use of the h-index as a measure of the overall scientific impact of
researchers or research groups. There are better alternatives. The paper by
Waltman and Van Eck is now available as a preprint
will soon be published by the Journal of the American Society for Information
Science and Technology


The h-index is a measure of a combination of productivity and citation
impact. It is calculated by ordering the number of publications by a particular
researcher on the basis of the total number of citations they have received.
For example, someone who has an h-index of 40 has published at least 40
articles that have each been cited at least 40 times. Moreover, the remaining
articles have not been cited more than 40 times each. The higher the h-index the


The h-index was proposed by physicist Jorge Hirsch in 2005. It was an
immediate hit. Nowadays, there are about 40 variants of the h-index. About one
quarter of all articles published in the main scientometric journals have cited
Hirsch’ article in which he describes the h-index. Even more important has been
the response by scientific researchers using the h-index. The h-index has many
fans, especially in the fields that exchange many citations, such as the
biomedical sciences. The h-index is almost irrresistable because it seems to
enable a simple comparison of the scientific impact of different researchers. Many
institutions have been seduced by the siren call of the h-index. For example,
the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in the Netherlands inquires
about the value of the h-index in its recent forms for new members. Individual
researchers can look up their h-index based on Google Scholar documents via
Harzing’s website publish or perish. Both economists and computer scientists
have produced a ranking of their field based on the h-index.


Our colleagues Waltman and Van Eck have now shown that the h-index has some
fatal shortcomings. For example, if two researchers with a different h-index
co-author a paper together, it may lead to a reversal of their position in an
h-index based ranking. The same may happen when we compare research groups.
Suppose we have two groups and each member of group A has a higher h-index than
a paired researcher in group B. We would now expect that the h-index of group A
as group is also higher than that of group B. Well, that does not have to be
the case. Please note that we are now speaking of a calculation of the h-index
based on a complete and reliable record of documents and citations. The
problematic nature of the data if one uses Google Scholar as data source is a
different matter. So, even when we have complete and accurate data, the h-index
may produce inconsistent results. Surely, this is not what one wants using the
index for evaluation purposes!


At CWTS, we have therefore drawn the conclusion that the h-index should not be used as measure of scientific
impact in the context of research evaluation.

Rankings under Groninger fire

Rafael Wittek, director of the Internuniversity Center for
Social Science Theory and Methodology
, based at the University of Groningen,
recently attacked Dutch university policies at the occasion of the 25th
anniversary of his famous graduate school. One of his targets was “the hype
around rankings”. Accredited in 1986, the ICS was the first national social
science graduate school in the Netherlands. The school emerged from Dutch
networks of PhD students that were funded by the Ministry of Education and
Science. According to Wittek, the universities are now trying to get a high score
in the global rankings (such as the Times Higher Education ranking, the Shanghai
and of course also the Leiden ranking) and he argued that this is a
wrongheaded approach. “Rankings as an indicator of quality are a hype. To adopt
them is merely a policy reflex.”


I think the sociologist puts his finger on a sore spot in Dutch
science policy and management. This is particularly true for his critique of
the policies around PhD training and the national Graduate Schools. According
to Wittek, “The Hague” has been too eager to follow new European guidelines and
has promoted the competition, rather than the cooperation, among universities.
“In the last couple of years, many national Graduate Schools have been
dismantled and new local Graduate Schools have been created in their stead.
Dutch universities increasingly claim the results of ‘their’ researchers and
give them less possibilities to collaborate with colleagues from other
universities”. His remarks will strike a chord with everybody (such as myself)
who have been formed in the national research schools in which all or almost
all universities worked together. It is indeed a loss that the Dutch ministry discouraged
national Graduate Schools and completely switched towards stimulating local ones,
although happily a few nation-wide schools are still alive and kicking (such as
the Graduate School Science, Technology
and Modern Culture


Still, although his remarks are to the point, I do not think
he is completely right. For example, it is simply not true that the Dutch
universities would be involved in a ruthless competition with each other. On
the contrary, the new trend is the emergence of regional clusters of
universities as a new form of intimate collaboration to be able to compete
globally with American and Asian universities. Increasing collaboration is moreover
the trend in scientific publications,
as demonstrated recently by a study of my colleagues at CWTS and by the recent
Royal Society Report on scientific networks. The share of the multi-authored,
multi-institutional, international publications is still rising, in all fields
of research. And their average citation impact is greater than those of
single-author or national publications. I don’t think that we should
overestimate the power of university boards to limit the scale of scientific


Nonetheless, Wittek’s criticism of ranking should certainly
be taken very seriously. The sociologist sees a danger in the “policy reflex”
for the quality of research and in particular in the areas of high-risk
fundamental research. He thinks that researchers who are forced to score high
in the rankings will be reluctant to take on big, important questions and will
tend to develop a more limited and less risky research agenda. I agree. This is
indeed the most important risk of rankings running wild, disconnected from the
context of fundamental or applied research. But I think there may be a bit more
at play than just policy reflexes. The universities are confronted with an
accelerating process of global competition in which new scientific centres are
emerging, among others China, India, Brazil, Turkey and Iran. In these
countries, researchers tend to have to meet much stricter performance criteria
than is usual in the Netherlands. This makes it difficult, perhaps even
impossible, for Dutch university boards to ignore this. In the Netherlands this
problem is particularly acute since the recent xenophobic hype around
immigration in this country is making it already difficult enough to attract
talented young researchers from non-European countries. Does this mean that an
obsession with rankings is inevitable? I think not. I could imagine a number of
alternative, more imaginative strategies to counter this race for the highest
position in the rankings.


I do think Wittek is right
that recognition by peers is the strongest motivator for researchers. He even
thinks that scientists do not need any other stimulus. This last idea may be a
bit over the top. But I do think he has a good point. Therefore, rankings can
and should be used in direct connection with this peer stimulus. Policies that
are only focused on getting higher in the global university rankings indeed do
not make much sense. But this does not mean that it makes no sense at all to
rank. Rankings can very well be used to get a better understanding of ones
strong and weak points (both at the level of individual researchers, groups and
institutes, and universities and countries). This can be done while taking into
account the specific characteristics of the relevant disciplines. (For different
disciplines different databases may be needed to measure the rankings). Ranking
in context, that should

possible, shouldn’t it?

Does ranking drive reputation?

 The recent Times Higher Reputation Ranking also raises a number of more fundamental questions about the production of reputation. If we compare the reputation ranking with the overall THE World Universities ranking, it is striking that the reputation ranking is much more skewed. The top 6 universities eat almost the whole reputation pie. University number 50 (Osaka) has only 6 % of the "amount of reputation" that number 1 (Harvard) has, whereas number 50 in the overall THE ranking (Vanderbilt University) still has 69 % of the rating of number 1 (again Harvard). The reputation is based on a survey (of which the validity is unclear), but how do the respondents determine the reputation of universities of which they direct knowledge (for example because they do not work there)?

 A recent issue of the New Yorker has an interesting analysis by Malcolm Gladwell about ranking American colleges (The order of things. What colleges rankings really tell us, The New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011, pp. 68-75). His topic is another ranking, perhaps even more famous than the THE Ranking: the Best Colleges Guide published by U.S. News & World Report. This is also based on a survey where university teachers are asked to rank the American colleges. When a university president is asked to assess the performance of a college, "he relies on the only source of detailed information at his disposal that assesses the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about: U.S. News." According to Michael Bastedo, an educational sociologist at the University of Michigan, "rankings drive reputation". Gladwell concludes therefore that the U.S. News ratings are "a self-fulfilling prophecy".

 The extremely skewed distribution of reputation is in itself an indication that this might also be true for the THE ranking. Performance ratings are ususally skewed because of network and scaling effects. A big research institute can mobilize more resources to produce top quality research, will therefore attract more external funding, and so on: this sustains a positive feedback loop. But if the resulting rankings are also strongly influencing the data that feed into the next ranking, the skewedness of the ranking becomes even stronger.

This would mean that the THE Reputation Ranking does not only show that, in the perception of the respondents, a few American universities plus Oxford dominate the world, it also indicates that these respondents use the THE ranking, and comparable rankings, to fill in the forms that subsequently determine the next ranking.

 Thus, this type of ranking creates its own reality and truthfulness.

Dutch reputation anxiety

 The recent Times Higher Education Top Universities by Reputation, published on 10 March 2011, has created some anxiety among Dutch universities. Some press releases suggested that this was a new ranking and it showed a much lower position of the universities than they had in the World Universities Ranking published in September 2010. To what extent should these universities worry?

 The recent reputation ranking is actually not a new ranking but the publication of a part of the older research underlying the September THE ranking. The reputation indicator that contributed to the ranking has now been published separately, which of course results in a different listing.

Comparing the two rankings, the reputation of the Dutch universities seems to be lower than their performance would justify. The Technical University Delft is highest at position 49. Among the top hundred only Utrecht University, Leiden University, and the University of Amsterdam are present. This contrasts clearly with the overall THE World Universities Ranking which is based not only on reputation but also on a mix of performance indicators. In that list, no less than ten Dutch universities are present among the best 200 universities of the world, with scores between 50 and 55 (Harvard scores 100). So this contrast might mean that the (relatively small) Dutch universities could improve their reputation management, especially at the international level.

 On the other hand, it is not clear how important this reputation ranking actually is. The results are based on an invitation only survey. THE sent out "tens of thousands" of requests to participate and received 13 thousand usable responses. It is unclear to what extent this sample is representative for the international academic community. There does appear to be some relation between the ranking results and effort in reputation management. The list is dominated by a small group of American universities together with Oxford University, so we see the usual suspects. All have invested in focused reputation management including the innovative use of new media. It would be interesting to analyze the determining factors for this reputation ranking. Perhaps THE can publish the underlying data?

Ranking universities

In the last two weeks, several new university rankings were published. Since universities are facing ever tougher competition, their placement in university rankings becomes increasingly important. So, I’ll spend a couple of blogs on rankings, how the lists are constructed, and what one needs to take into consideration in their interpretation. It struck me that the business of ranking has become more sophisticated over the years. Now that rankings are an instrument for universities in the competition for resources, researchers and students, the competition between them is also increasing. This can work to increase the quality of these rankings, on the other hand it might also promote an overly simple interpretation. Ranking is a complicated business, because it means that a complex phenomenon such as quality, which is by definition composed of many independent dimensions, is reduced to a one-dimensional list. The attraction of rankings is exactly this reduction of reality to an ordered list in which one’s position is unambiguous. This also means that ranking is an inherently problematic business. For example, a university may have high quality teaching as its core mission. This means this university may not score high in a ranking that does not really take teaching into account. In other words, if one wants to evaluate the performance of an institution, one should take into account its mission. It would still be a difficult task to squeeze the complex network of performances of institutions into a simple ordered list. And perhaps we should abstain from ordered lists as such, and develop a completely new form of presentation of performance data. The importance of university missions and the fact that quality is a complex phenomenon that has many different aspects, is central in a European research project lead by CHEPS in which CWTS also participates. This project may produce a new way of monitoring university performance. But for now, we are stuck with one-dimensional rankings. There are five different university rankings that are commonly used, and I will spend a blog on each of them in the course of this week. These are: the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, the QS ranking (a spin-off of the THES ranking), the Leiden ranking produced by CWTS, the Shanghai ranking, and the somewhat lesser-known Web of World Universities ranking. In the next blog, I’ll discuss how rankings are being used by universities, then I will discuss each ranking in more detail, to conclude with some ideas about the future of rankings.