Are university rankings useful to improve research? A systematic review

Open access Are university rankings useful to improve research? A systematic review, by Vernon, Balas, and Momani, PLOS One (2018).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Introduction
Concerns about reproducibility and impact of research urge improvement initiatives. Current university ranking systems evaluate and compare universities on measures of academic and research performance. Although often useful for marketing purposes, the value of ranking systems when examining quality and outcomes is unclear. The purpose of this study was to evaluate usefulness of ranking systems and identify opportunities to support research quality and performance improvement.

Methods
A systematic review of university ranking systems was conducted to investigate research performance and academic quality measures. Eligibility requirements included: inclusion of at least 100 doctoral granting institutions, be currently produced on an ongoing basis and include both global and US universities, publish rank calculation methodology in English and independently calculate ranks. Ranking systems must also include some measures of research outcomes. Indicators were abstracted and contrasted with basic quality improvement requirements. Exploration of aggregation methods, validity of research and academic quality indicators, and suitability for quality improvement within ranking systems were also conducted.

Results
A total of 24 ranking systems were identified and 13 eligible ranking systems were evaluated. Six of the 13 rankings are 100% focused on research performance. For those reporting weighting, 76% of the total ranks are attributed to research indicators, with 24% attributed to academic or teaching quality. Seven systems rely on reputation surveys and/or faculty and alumni awards. Rankings influence academic choice yet research performance measures are the most weighted indicators. There are no generally accepted academic quality indicators in ranking systems.

Discussion
No single ranking system provides a comprehensive evaluation of research and academic quality. Utilizing a combined approach of the Leiden, Thomson Reuters Most Innovative Universities, and the SCImago ranking systems may provide institutions with a more effective feedback for research improvement. Rankings which extensively rely on subjective reputation and “luxury” indicators, such as award winning faculty or alumni who are high ranking executives, are not well suited for academic or research performance improvement initiatives. Future efforts should better explore measurement of the university research performance through comprehensive and standardized indicators. This paper could serve as a general literature citation when one or more of university ranking systems are used in efforts to improve academic prominence and research performance.

university-ranking-comparison
Conflicting global rankings of an illustrative research university (per most recent published results, 2016).

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