Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ron Smith: More on academic ranking

I cannot resist a footnote to my last posting. It has now come to my notice that the latest world university rankings, which placed Harvard first, Oxford and Cambridge Universities joint sixth, and the University of Auckland 143rd (the only New Zealand placing), placed Alexandria University of Egypt, just behind at 147th. Alexandria University was also fourth-ranked in the world in the category of ‘citations’, which probably skewed the overall assessment, very substantially.

The explanation for this rather surprising outcome turns on the presence in Alexandria of a particularly enterprising academic, Mohamed El Naschie, who apparently published, during the review period no less than 320 of his own articles in a scientific journal of which he was also the editor.

There are a number of conclusions that might be drawn from this episode. The most obvious is that any New Zealand university wishing to improve its ranking should immediately offer Dr Naschie a personal chair in whatever field he is publishing in. There would be no need for him to actually come here, or engage in any teaching. It would be sufficient that his outputs are credited. Provided that the university was not Auckland, we should then have two universities in the world top 200.

More prosaically, New Zealand universities, like their counterparts overseas, can continue with the practice of organising seminars, with the understanding that all who contribute will have their papers accepted as equally worthy and as quality outputs (because they will be ‘peer reviewed’ by themselves). They will just have to do it more. As they used to say in the rag trade, ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’. Of course, this was said in the context of dismissing altogether the concept of quality.

The probability is that there will be an adjustment in the process to curtail the most egregious abuses of the system and that Alexandria (and Dr El Naschie) will have faded from prominence in next year’s ranking but that will not change the less-dramatic, continuous gaming of the system. Crude rankings based on an inherently-flawed system will continue to be a disservice to scholarship and an injustice to many scholars, even if suits the marketing departments of the universities concerned, with each watching the others and afraid to break ranks.

In a non-quantitative way, we surely know of the academic record of the world’s great institutions, and that will continue to be the case, as we associate new insights and discoveries with persons from those institutions but we do not need to formalise these judgements into a system. This is particularly the case when the system is so vulnerable to corruption.

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