Universities demand full transparency university rankings

Last week, I attended a two day conference of the rectors of 65 Latin American universities about global university rankings in Mexico City. The meeting concluded by adopting a “Final Declaration” signed by the majority of attending universities. At times, it was a debate in which the emotions ran high. Clearly, many universities leaders had the feeling that they were badly served by most global university rankings. In this, they were supported by the keynote speaker, Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne (Australia). He held an excellent speech in which he showed how most rankings are based on a particular model of higher education as a globalized market. In this framework US universities are dominant. Many rectors were of the opinion that the social mission of the Latin American universities will not be valued in this model. Moreover, performance at the international research front is dominant in most rankings, including in our Leiden Ranking. Latin American universities do not score high, if they make it to the ranking at all.

The meeting was organized by Imanol Ordorika, director of institutional evaluation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. A former leader of the 1987 student demonstrations, he is focused both on international research (in the field of higher education) and on the social role of the universities. The countries in Latin America are confronted with high levels of corruption, enormous economic and social inequalities, and the need for much better mass education. Although these universities are huge (UNAM has more than 300 thousand students), they still cannot accomodate all young people who aspire to study. Approximately one-fifth of Latin America’s youth neither studies nor works. No wonder that university rectors not only worry about their international research effort, but at least as much or more about their role in improving the educational system in their countries.

Against this background, the well-known deficiencies of many global university rankings are even more urgent. This was also the reason to organize the conference. Increasingly, universities that score low or not at all in the rankings – such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, de QS World University Rankings, or the Academic Ranking of World Universities (the Shanghai Ranking), or the Ranking Web of World Universities – are questioned about their performance. According to the declaration adopted at the conference, the current rankings have many undesirable effects, such as a homogenizing impact in which the elite US based research university is dominant, a bias in the perception of the performance of Latin American  universities, an undermining of the legitimacy of the national higher education institutions, and the mistaken tendency to see rankings as information systems.

Key problems in the global rankings discussed were: the arbitrary way in which different indicators are combined into one composite indicator; the lack of visibility of the humanities and social sciences; the neglect of the social and cultural impact of the universities; and last but not least the lack of transparency of both methods and data that are used to calculate the indicators. The Leiden Ranking was praised for its transparency and its focus, as was the SCImago Ranking. It was seen as helpful that these rankings make very explicit what they measure and what they do not measure. Of course, these rankings do not enable to compare the universities social mission. For this other measures are needed.

The “Final Declaration” demanded that governments in Latin America avoid using the rankings as elements in evaluating the universities performance. They were also advised to encourage the creation of public databases that permits a well-founded knowledge of the performance of the higher education system. The ranking producers were called upon to adhere to the 2006 “Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions”. Rankings should be 100% transparent. Ranking producers should also engage in more interaction with the universities. The declaration notes that there is currently no consensus on criteria for measuring the quality of universities. “Any selection of parameters or quantitative indicators to sum up the qualities of universities is rather arbitrary”. The media are admonished to provide a more balanced coverage of the rankings. And the universities in Latin America are encouraged to adopt policies that promote transparency, accountability and open access. Rankings can play a role here. However, universities should not sacrifice “our fundamental responsibilities” in order to implement “superficial strategies designed to improve our standings in the rankings”.

Paul Wouters


Seminar on Intellectual Property, Science, Patenting and Publishing

We hereby cordially invite you to this afternoon’s open seminar at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University.

Time: May 11th, 15-16.30h
Location: CWTS Common room, Willem Einthoven building, 5th floor, Wassenaarseweg 62a, Leiden

“In the Interest of Disinterestedness: the Intellectual Properties of Marie Curie”
Prof. Eva Hemmungs Wirtén (Uppsala University, Sweden)


In 1923, Marie Curie wrote:

“My husband, as well as myself, always refused to draw from our discovery any material profit. We have published, since the beginning, without any reserve, the process that we used to prepare radium. We took out no patent and we did not reserve any advantage in any industrial exploitation. No detail was kept secret, and it is due to the information we gave in our publications that the industry of radium has been rapidly developed. Up to the present time this industry hardly uses any methods except those established by us.”

Five sentences, four actions, one result. This is as close as we get to a last will and testament over the principles, acts, and legacy Marie Curie wanted readers to associate with the Curie name. Brief and clipped in style, she nonetheless managed to use the format to her advantage, using an efficient rhetorical strategy where statements of action immediately follow upon statements of non-action. Yes, material profit was refused but on the other hand publishing took place without reserve. No advantage was reserved in industrial application, but no detail was kept secret and information given freely. Finally, and interestingly enough considering their avowed non-proprietary stance and negation of patenting, the result of their actions is not the opening up of new scientific frontiers, but the blossoming of a radium industry. But as she clearly demarcated what she and her husband did or did not do, she provided more than a snapshot representation of their particular mindset. She indicated the presence of a structural and ongoing tension in science between a gift/market dichotomy, between two distinct systems of credit and reward. This tension is at the heart of my talk, which focuses on the two specific materialities, the two textual expressions that Marie Curie placed on either side of the gift/market precipice: patents and publications. Patents represented an “interested” perspective where you “reserved advantage.” Choosing to “publish without reserve” and keeping “no detail secret,” instead epitomized the values of disinterestedness. In approaching this formative representational dichotomy between patenting and publishing in the making of the Curie persona and myth, my aim is to consider what purposes are served by keeping them on their separate ledges, which, as a consequence, means understanding something of where and how they converge. As I hope to be able to show, the gifting/patenting of radium took place on a decidedly more hybrid territory than Curie’s quote implies.


Eva Hemmungs Wirtén is Professor in Library- and Information Science and Associate Professor [Docent] in Comparative Literature, the Department of ALM, Uppsala University, Sweden. She is the author of two peer-reviewed monographs published by the University of Toronto Press, No Trespassing: Authorship, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Boundaries of Globalization (2004) and Terms of Use: Negotiating the Jungle of the Intellectual Commons (2008). Recent articles include “A Diplomatic Salto Mortale: Translation Trouble in Berne, 1884-1886” for Book History (14) 2011, and “Colonial Copyright, Postcolonial Publics: the Berne Convention and the 1967 Stockholm Diplomatic Conference Revisited” in SCRIPTed, A Journal of Law, Technology & Society, December 2010 (7) 3. Forthcoming in 2012 are two book chapters; “Plants, Pills, and Patents: Circulating Knowledge” in Intellectual Property and Emerging Biotechnologies (Eds. Matthew Rimmer and Alison McLennan) and “Swedish Subtitling Strike Called Off! Fan-to-Fan Piracy, Translation, and the Primacy of Authorization,” in Amateur Media: Social, Cultural and Legal Perspectives (Eds. Dan Hunter, Ramon Lobato, Megan Richardson and Julian Thomas). She is currently funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) writing a book due for completion in the summer of 2013 preliminarily entitled Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property, Science, and the Power of Print.

For more information, please see http://www.socialsciences.leiden.edu/cwts/news/cwts-seminar-20120511.html

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