China’s universities just grabbed 6 of the top 10 spots in one worldwide science ranking – without changing a thing

University leaders pay close attention to comparative rankings such as those offered by Times Higher Education, ShanghaiRanking Consultancy and others. Rankings influence student matriculation numbers, attract talented faculty and justify donations from wealthy donors. University leaders rail against them, and some schools “withdraw” from them, but rankings are influential.

A radical shift in the data underlying rankings is about to upend the rankings world – largely in favor of China’s position.

For instance, in early 2024, the Leiden University Center for Science and Technology Studies CWTS group issued new university rankings that add open-data sources to the traditional curated list of elite journals that has been the standard. The results show a world turned upside down for university rankings.

Where once the list of universities with the highest scientific impact would have been dominated by U.S. and U.K. schools including Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard and MIT, the new top 10 list of universities with high scientific impact includes six universities from China.

What does this transformation mean for understanding scholarly excellence? I study the global research system and its contribution to social welfare. China’s swift progress in science and technology, propelled by investments in research and university strength, has alarmed the United States and other nations. Concerns are mounting that the U.S. may be losing its competitive advantage to an assertive rival, with potential implications for national security, economic standing and global influence. These new rankings will likely raise even more alarm.

Broader range of more sources

The rankings programs draw heavily upon quantitative assessments called “indicators.” A glance at the influential ShanghaiRanking criteria shows the inputs to its assessment include “papers indexed in major citation indices.” The popular indices draw from a highly curated set of scholarly journals such as Cell, The Lancet and Chemical Reviews. The most reputed index collecting information on these and other journals is the Web of Science’s Science Citation Index, or SCI, a product of careful standardization and data enrichment by Clarivate.

SCI represents only a fraction of the work published worldwide, though. Among other critiques, many people decry the SCI’s exclusivity and its perceived Western bias.

But careful curation makes it the gold standard of academic indexing and one that journals and authors aspire to join. Its value is in its replicability: It is possible to dip into it multiple times using different search strategies and produce comparable results.

Reliance on curated databases is about to end with the introduction of rankings based on open data like that collected by OpenAlex. OpenAlex claims to include over 100,000 journals – of highly varying quality and editorial practices – compared with SCI’s 9,200. All data in OpenAlex has been released…

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