Harvard no longer number 1 in ranking

Recently, the new Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-2012 saw the light. The ranking revealed that Harvard University is no longer number one on the list. Incidentally, the differences with Caltech – now highest – are minimal. The main reason for Caltech’s rise are the extra revenues it drew out of industry. Caltech’s income increased by 16%, thereby outclassing most other universities. Harvard scored a bit better when it comes to the educational environment. Other universities also rose on the list as a result of a successful campaign to obtain (more) external financing. The London School of Economics, for example, moved from 86 to 47. The top of the ranking did not change that drastically though. Rich US-based universities still dominate the list. 7 out of ten universities highest on the list, and one third of the top 200, are located in the US.

This illustrates the THE ranking’s sensitivity to slight differences between indicators that, taken together, shape the order of the ranking. The ranking is based on a mix of many different indicators. There is no standardized way to combine these indicators, and therefore there inevitably is a certain arbitrariness to the process. In addition, the THE ranking is partly based on results of a global survey. This survey invites researchers and professors to assess the reputation of universities. One of the unwanted effects of this method is that well-known universities are more likely to be positively assessed than less popular universities. Highly visible forms of maltreatment and scandals may also influence survey results.

This year, the ranking’s sensitivity to the ways in which different indicators are combined is aptly illustrated by the position of the Dutch universities. The Netherlands are at number 3, with 12 universities in the top 200 and 4 in the first 100 of the world. Given the size of the country, this is a remarkable achievement. The result is partly caused by a strong international orientation of the Dutch universities, and partly by previous investments in research and education. But just as important is the weight given to the performances of the social sciences and humanities in a number of indicators. Compared to last year, the total performance of Dutch universities most likely did not increase that much. A more likely explanation is that the profile of activities and impact are better covered by the THE ranking.

The latest THE ranking does make clear that size is not the most important determinant in positioning universities. Small specialized universities can end up quite high on the list.


Perspectives on computer simulation and data visualization

When it comes to critical analysis of the role of computers, data visualization, simulations and modeling in the sciences, much can be learned from humanities scholars. I’m currently teaching a course on the role of computer-generated images in contemporary science and visual culture at Utrecht University. Yesterday I learned that the New Media department hosts two very interesting events. Today, Tuesday October 18, there’s a workshop on software applications as active agents in shaping knowledge. The two keynote speakers are Dr Eckhart Arnold (University of Stuttgart), expert in the field of simulation technologies, and Dr Bernhard Rieder (University of Amsterdam), who researches how computers and software organize knowledge.

A week later, on October 25, Setup will host an event on data visualization at the Wolff Cinema movie theatre in Utrecht. Some of the most striking recent data visualization projects will be displayed on screen, and the following questions will be addressed: what makes data visualizations so appealing? Do they bring across the same message as the ‘raw’ data they originate from? Ann-Sophie Lehmann (associate professor New Media en Art History, UU) will discuss the visualizations and will throw light on some of the effects they have on viewers. One question that came to my mind is what this particular context (a movie theater) does to the (reception of) the visualizations, compared to a web-based interaction on a laptop or PC, for instance.

Understanding Academic Careers

On November 16, 2011, the Rathenau Institute and the VU University Amsterdam organize a symposium on Dynamics of Academic Leadership. The symposium addresses the conditions that are necessary for high levelperformance and creativity in research, and the implications for researchmanagement and policy. Paul is one of the invited speakers. He will discuss some of the programmatic aspects and preliminary results of a large European FP-7 project: Academic Careers Understood through Measurement and Norms (ACUMEN). ACUMEN is aimed at understanding theways in which researchers are evaluated by their peers and institutions,and at assessing how the science system can be improved and enhanced. The project is a cooperation among several European research institutes, with Paul as the principalinvestigator and CWTS’s Clifford Tatum as project manager.

Science mapping: do we know what we visualize?

A recent landmark in the field of science mapping is Katy Börner’s Atlas of Science: Visualizing What We Know (MIT Press, 2010). The atlas recently won the ASIS&T Best Information Science Book Award 2011.The kinds of maps covered by the atlas range from historical timelines, network diagrams and citation networks revealing rises in patent citations, to geographic maps, taxonomic hierarchies and maps of relative sizes and connectedness of scientific fields.

The advent of science mapping depends to a large extent on digitized indices of scholarly activity such as the Science Citation Index, and on advances in network analysis and visualization techniques. Bibliometric maps of scholarly activity are mostly based on bibliographic coupling, co-citation analyses or maps of keywords based on a co-occurrence network. The visualizations that are created are transformations of quantified data into visual form. The avalanche of bibliometric data incorporated in massive databases demand new visualization tools and – crucially – the skills to understand and engage with these new kinds of visualizations.

Most bibliometric mapping endeavors radiate an ambition on the part of the scientist(s) producing these maps to be synthetic, comprehensive and definitive. Börner’s Atlas of Science, for instance, is said to chart “the trajectory from scientific concept to published results,” revealing “the landscape of what we know.” However, maps are not a direct reflection of reality, all sorts of decisions are taken to process the data before they can be presented. While this may seem a matter ‘of course’, it does have consequences for the interpretation and  use of these maps.

For example, what often gets glossed over in these endeavors is that visualizations of scientific developments also prescribe how these developments should be known in the first place. Science maps are produced by particular statistical algorithms that might have been chosen otherwise, calculations performed on large amounts of ‘raw’ data , and for this reason they are not simply ‘statistical information presented visually’. The choice for a particular kind of visualization is often connected to the specificities and meaning of the underlying dataset and the software used to process the data. Several software packages have been specifically designed for this purpose (the VOSViewer supported by CWTS being one of them). These packages prescribe how the data should be handled. Different choices in selection and processing of the data will lead to sometimes strikingly different maps. Therefore, we will increasingly need systematic experiments and studies with different forms of visual presentation (Tufte, 2006).

At the same time, a number of interfaces are built into the mapping process, where an encounter takes place with a user who approaches these visualizations as evidence. But how do these users actually behave? To our knowledge hardly any systematic research is done on how users (bibliometricians, computer scientists, institute directors, policy makers and their staff, etc.) engage with these visualizations, and which skills and strategies are needed to engage with them. A critical scrutiny is needed of the degree of ‘visual literacy’ (Pauwels, 2008) demanded of users who want to critically work with and examine these visualizations. The visualizations technical or formal choices that determine what can be visualized and what will remain hidden. Furthermore, they are also shaped by the broader cultural and historical context in which they are produced.

Unfortunately there is a tendency to downplay the visuality of science maps, in favor of the integrity of the underlying data and the sophistication of transformation algorithms. However, visualizations are “becoming increasingly dependent upon technology, while technology is increasingly becoming imaging and visualization technology” (Pauwels 2008, 83). We expect that this interconnection between data selection, data processing and data visualization will become much stronger in the near future. These connections should therefore be systematically analyzed, while the field develops and experiments with different forms of visual representation.

Science mapping projects do not simply measure and describe scientific developments – they also have a normative potential. the director of a research institute wants to map the institute’s research landscape in terms of research topics and possible applications, and wants to see how the landscape develops over the next five years. This kind of mapping project, like any other description of reality, is not only descriptive but also performative. In other words, the map that gets created in response to this director’s question also shapes the reality it attempts to represent. One possible consequence of this hypothetical mapping project could be that the director decides on the basis of this visual analysis to focus more on certain underdeveloped research strands, at the expense of or in addition to others. The map that was meant to chart the terrain now becomes embedded in management decision processes. As a result, it plays an active part in a shift in the institute’s research agenda, an agenda that will be mapped in five years’ time with the same analytical means that were originally merely intended to describe the landscape.

A comparable example can actually be found in Börner’s book: a map that shows all National Institute of Health (NIH) grant awards from a single funding year., giving access to a database and web-based interface. The clusters on the map correspond to broader scientific topics covered in the grants, while the dots correspond with individual grants clustered together by a shared topical focus.

Here, too, it would be informative to analyze the potential role these maps play as policy instruments (for instance, in accountability studies). This type of analysis will be all the more urgent when bibliometric maps are increasingly used for the purposes of research evaluation. The maps created on the basis of bibliometric data do not simply ‘visualize what we know’. They actively shape bibliometric knowledge production, use and dissemination in ways that require careful scrutiny.

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