Though it was passed over in silence here in Canada, the new Leiden university research rankings made a bit of a splash elsewhere, last week. I gave a brief overview of the Leiden rankings last year. Based on five years’ worth of Web of Science publication and citation data (2008-2012), it is by some distance the best way to compare institutions’ current research output and performance. The Leiden rankings have always allowed comparisons along a number of dimensions of impact and collaboration; what’s new – and fabulous – this year is that the results can be disaggregated into five broad areas of study (biomedical sciences, life & earth sciences, math & computer science, natural sciences & engineering, and social sciences & humanities).
So how did Canadian universities do?
The big news is that the University of Toronto is #2 in the world (Harvard = #1) in terms of publications, thanks mainly to its gargantuan output in biomedical sciences. But when one starts looking at impact, the story is not quite as good. American universities come way out in front on impact in all five areas of study – natural, since they control the journals and they read and cite each others’ work more often than they do that of foreigners. The UK is second in all categories (except math & computer science), third place in most fields belongs to the Dutch (seriously – their numbers are stunning), followed by the Germans and Chinese, followed (at a distance) by Canada and Australia. Overall, if you look at each country’s half-dozen or so best universities, sixth or seventh is probably where we rank as a country in all sub-fields, and overall.
Also of interest is the data on collaboration, and specifically the percentage of publications which have an international co-author. That Canada ranks low on this measure shouldn’t be a surprise: Europeans tend to dominate this measure because there are so many countries cheek by jowl. But the more interesting finding is just how messy international collaboration is as a measure of anything. Sure, there are some good schools with high levels of international collaboration (e.g. Caltech). But any indicator where the top schools are St. Petersburg State and King Saud University probably isn’t a clear-cut measure of quality.
Among Canadian schools, there aren’t many big surprises. Toronto, UBC, and McGill are the big three; Alberta does well in terms of volume of publications, but badly in terms of impact; and Victoria and Simon Fraser lead the way on international collaborations.
If you have even the slightest interest in bibliometrics, do go and play around with the customizable data on the Leiden site. It’s fun, and you’ll probably learn something.