GLOBAL: Bibliometrics, rankings and transparency

Why do we care so much about the actual and potential uses of bibliometrics ("the generic term for data about publications", according to the OECD) and world university ranking methodologies, but care so little about the private sector firms, and their inter-firm relations, that drive the bibliometrics and global rankings agenda forward?

This question came to mind when I was reading the 17 June 2010 issue of Nature magazine, which includes a detailed assessment of various aspects of bibliometrics, including the value of 'science metrics' to assess aspects of the impact of research output (eg publications) as well as 'individual scientific achievement'.

The Nature special issue, especially Richard Van Noorden's survey on the "rapidly evolving ecosystem" of [biblio]metrics, is well worth a read. Even though bibliometrics can be a problematic and fraught dimension of academic life, they are rapidly becoming an accepted dimension of the governance (broadly defined) of higher education and research.

Bibliometrics are generating a diverse and increasingly deep impact regarding the governance process at a range of scales, from the individual (a key focus of the Nature special issue) through to the unit/department, the university, the discipline/field, the national, the regional and the global.

Now while the development process of this 'eco-system' is rapidly changing, and a plethora of innovations are occurring regarding how different disciplines/fields should or should not utilise bibliometrics to better understand the nature and impact of knowledge production and dissemination, it is interesting to stand back and think about the non-state actors producing, for profit, this form of technology that meshes remarkably well with our contemporary audit culture.

I've got two main points to make, before concluding with some questions to consider.

First, it seems to me that there is a disproportionate amount of research being conducted on the uses and abuses of metrics in contrast to research on who the producers of these metrics are, how these firms and their inter-firm relations operate, and how they attempt to influence the nature of academic practice around the world.

Now, I am not seeking to imply that firms such as Elsevier (producer of Scopus), Thomson Reuters (producer of the ISI Web of Knowledge), and Google (producer of Google Scholar), are necessarily generating negative impacts (see, for example, "Regional content expansion in Web of Science®: opening borders to exploration"', a good news story from Thomson Reuters that we happily sought out). But I want to make the point that there is a glaring disjuncture between the volume of research conducted on bibliometrics versus research on these firms (the bibliometricians), and how these technologies are brought to life and to market.

A search of Thomson Reuter's ISI Web of Knowledge for terms like Scopus, Thomson Reuters, Web of Science and bibliometrics generates a nearly endless list of articles comparing the main data bases, the innovations associated with them and so on, but amazingly little research on Elsevier or Thomson Reuters (ie the firms).

From thick to thin, indeed, and somewhat analogous to the lack of substantial research available on ratings agencies such as Moody's or Standard and Poor's.
Second, and on a related note, the role of firms such as Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, not to mention QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd and TSL Education Ltd, in fuelling the global rankings phenomenon has received remarkably little attention in contrast to vigorous debates about methodologies. For example, the four main global ranking schemes, past and present, all draw from the databases provided by Thomson Reuters and Elsevier:

* Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities (2003 on)
* Times Higher Education/QS World University Rankings (2004-2009)
* Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters World University Rankings (2010 on)
* QS World University Rankings (2010 on)

One of the interesting aspects of the involvement of these firms with the rankings phenomenon is that they have helped to create a normalised expectation that rankings happen once a year, even though there is no clear (and certainly not stated) logic for such a frequency. Why not every three or four years, for example, perhaps in alignment with the World Cup or the Olympics?

I can understand why rankings have to happen more frequently than the US' long-delayed National Research Council (NRC) scheme, and they certainly need to happen more frequently than the years France wins the World Cup championship title (sorry...) but why rank every single year?

But, let's think about this issue with the firms in mind versus the pros and cons of the methodologies in mind.

From a firm perspective, the annual cycle arguably needs to become normalised for it is a mechanism to extract freely provided data out of universities. These data are clearly used to rank but are also used to feed into the development of ancillary services and benchmarking capabilities that can be sold back to universities, funding councils, foundations, regional organisations (eg the European Commission which is intensely involved in benchmarking and now bankrolling a European ranking scheme), and the like.

QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd, for example, was marketing such services at their stand at the recent NAFSA conference in Kansas City, while Thomson Reuters has been busy developing what they deem the Global Institutional Profiles Project. This latter project is being spearheaded by Jonathon Adams, a former Leeds University staff member who established a private firm (Evidence Ltd) in the early 1990s that rode the UK's Research Assessment Excellence and European ERA waves before being acquired by Thomson Reuters in January 2009.

Sophisticated online data entry portals are also being created. These portals build a free-flow (at least one one-way) pipeline between the administrative offices of hundreds of universities around the world and the firms doing the ranking.

Data demands are becoming very resource-consuming for universities. For example, the QS template currently being dealt with by universities around the world shows 14 main categories with sub-categories for each: altogether there are 60 data fields, of which 10 are critical to the QS ranking exercise, to be launched in October 2010. Path dependency dynamics clearly exist for once the pipelines are laid the complexity of data requests can be gradually ramped up.

A key objective, then, seems to involve using annual global rankings to update fee-generating databases, not to mention boost intra-firm knowledge bases and capabilities (for consultancies), all operational at the global scale.

In closing, is the posited disjuncture between research on bibliometrics versus research on bibliometricians and the information service firms these units are embedded within, worth noting and doing something about?

Second, what is the rationale for annual rankings versus a more measured rankings window, in a temporal sense? Indeed, why not synchronise all global rankings to specific years (eg, 2010, 2014, 2018) so as to reduce strains on universities vis-à-vis the provision of data, and enable timely comparisons between competing schemes. A more measured pace would arguably reflect the actual pace of change within our higher education institutions versus the needs of these private firms.

And third, are firms such as Thomson Reuters and Elsevier, as well as their partners (especially QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd and TSL Education Ltd), being as transparent as they should be about the nature of their operations? Perhaps it would be useful to have accessible disclosures and discussions about:

* What happens with all the data that universities freely provide?
* What is stipulated in the contracts between teams of rankers (eg Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters)?
* What rights do universities have regarding the open examination and use of all of the data and associated analyses created on the basis of the data universities originally provided?
* Who should be governing, or at least observing, the relationship between these firms and the world's universities? Is this relationship best continued on a bilateral firm to university basis? Or is the current approach inadequate? If it is perceived to be inadequate, should other types of actors be brought into the picture at the national scale (eg, the US Department of Education or national associations of universities), the regional-scale (eg, the European University Association), and/or the global scale (eg, the International Association of Universities)?

In short, is it not time the transparency agenda the world's universities are being subjected to also applied to the private sector firms that are driving the bibliometrics and global rankings agenda forward?

* Kristopher Olds is a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting professor at the University of Warwick in the UK. This article first appeared in Global Higher Ed and is reproduced with permission from the author.