Pride and Prejudice (and University Program Rankings)

How to improve a discipline’s status in global rankings is a subject of vigorous, and frequently uninformed and fruitless, discussion.

Richard Freeman and Wei Huang analyzed two and a half million research papers from the US a few years ago. 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.

Different research has shown 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. Citations to published work, which are an important metric of the quality of research, are a significant component of ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2017, which was released recently. 

Its methodology does not include arbitrary reputation scores from so-called experts, but is rather based on a series of indicators, such as number of overall papers, citations in top journals, and international collaborations to determine standings. This influential ranking considers 4,000 universities over 52 subjects across natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences, and social sciences.

The most recent edition of ShanghaiRanking brought good tidings for McMaster Engineering. Our civil engineering program is ranked 29th in the world, and our metallurgical engineering, computer science and engineering, and transportation science and engineering are among the top 75 globally.

These four programs already meet our aspiration to be a global top 75 engineering school by 2025. Our water resources and telecommunications engineering programs are among the top 101-150 in the world, within striking distance of being top 75.

The English novelist Jane Austen was reportedly an admirer of Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia, which contains the passage, “if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries … to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.”

The Freeman and Huang research shows that academics, like everyone else, are prone to the idiosyncrasies of social networks, converging at work and home through homophily. If there are rankings miseries, these stem from pride in homogeneity and prejudice against diversity.

Commitment to diversity enhances the impact of academic research. A simple recipe for improving the longterm global rankings of research programs is to resist false pride and rooted prejudice, opting instead to breathe in diversity.

One thought on “Pride and Prejudice (and University Program Rankings)

  1. For all those who are threatened by diversity and unwelcoming to diversity, please consider the strength, vibrancy and breadth brought by diversity. Trade-off these attributes for the affirmative action, leg-up and yes even proportional representation efforts some programs institute. Underlying efforts at enrolling students for diversity is justice and equality in society too.

    Liked by 1 person

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