My colleague Kris Olds recently had an interesting point about the business model behind the Times Higher Education’s (THE) world university rankings. Since 2009 data collection for the rankings has been done by Thomson Reuters. This data comes from three sources. One is bibliometric analysis, which Thomson can do on the cheap because it owns the Web of Science database. The second is a reputational survey of academics. And the third is a survey of institutions, in which schools themselves provide data about a range of things, such as school size, faculty numbers, funding, etc.
Thomson gets paid for its survey work, of course. But it also gets the ability to resell this data through its consulting business. And while there’s little clamour for their reputational survey data (its usefulness is more than slightly marred by the fact that Thomson’s disclosure about the geographical distribution of its survey responses is somewhat opaque) – there is demand for access for all that data that institutional research offices are providing them.
As Kris notes, this is a great business model for Thomson. THE is just prestigious enough that institutions feel they cannot say no to requests for data, thus ensuring a steady stream of data which is both unique and – perhaps more importantly – free. But if institutions which provide data to the system want any data out of this it again, they have to pay.
(Before any of you can say it: HESA’s arrangement with the Globe and Mail is different in that nobody is providing us with any data. Institutions help us survey students and in return we provide each institution with its own results. The Thomson-THE data is more like the old Maclean’s arrangement with money-making sidebars).
There is a way to change this. In the United States, continued requests for data from institutions resulted in the creation of a Common Data Set (CDS); progress on something similar has been more halting in Canada (some provincial and regional ones exist but we aren’t yet quite there nationally). It’s probably about time that some discussions began on an international CDS. Such a data set would both encourage more transparency and accuracy in the data, and it would give institutions themselves more control over how the data was used.
The problem, though, is one of co-ordination: the difficulties of getting hundreds of institutions around the world to co-operate should not be underestimated. If a number of institutional alliances such as Universitas 21 and the Worldwide Universities Network, as well as the International Association of Universities and some key university associations were to come together, it could happen. Until then, though, Thomson is sitting on a tidy money-earner.