University rankings, research and homophily

A couple of years ago, Richard Freeman and Wei Huang analyzed two and a half million research papers from the US. They found that authors with English surnames were likely to have co-authors with English surnames, those with Chinese names co-authored papers with other Chinese names, and so on for seven other groups, including Russian and Korean names.

Their conclusion? Scientific research is like the rest of social life. People like to eat with, work with and generally connect with others who are similar to themselves. It’s called homophily.

Citations to our published work are an important metric of the quality of our research. Why then do we continue to pursue homophily even when research shows that the greater the ethnic and geographic diversity of our collaborators, the more likely it is that our scientific papers will be cited by other scientists?

Academics are supposed to be enlightened and highbrow. Aren’t we like everyone else – Trudeau and Harper, Clinton and Trump, Corbyn and May, and Gandhi and Modi supporters who converge at work through homophily, prone to the idiosyncrasies of our social networks?

I’m a strong proponent of gender diversity in engineering because women engineers get this. They’ve been underrepresented in engineering for so long that they inherently reject the institutional homophily that shuts them out.

If the leadership team that sets the policies and vision for a university is to be successful, it must understand and value diversity so as to ward off homophily. An effective team contains true diversity within itself. But how often does this happen?

If you sit at the policy table of a university, look left, look right and straight ahead. Who’s hanging with who at and after work, and why? When did you last have quality face time with someone who’s very influential?

Last week, Times Higher Education released its annual rankings of universities around the world. Canadian universities took a small “tumble” in this annual beauty contest, which Canada’s national newspaper Globe and Mail found worthy of extended comment.

How one might improve a university’s status in global rankings is a subject of vigorous, and frequently uninformed and fruitless, discussion. Research shows that the same old discussions about how impact is generated are no longer relevant.

We’ve established that, for university research, a less diverse team is more likely to produce fewer citations to its papers. Since engineers extrapolate under the right circumstances, I’ll extend this lesson to academic leadership.

The more diverse a university leadership team is, the less prone it will be to homophily. Therefore, it will be more likely to further the university’s mission and make an even greater impact on our world.

If we’re serious about the global rankings discussion then let’s open our doors and windows and breathe in true multicultural and gender diversity to resist homophily.


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