World’s most productive universities

One distinctive role of universities is to produce new knowledge. Sometimes, as with Albert Einstein’s classic 1905 paper on relativity, a single insight can change the world. But in the present era of university competition, it is not wise to rely on lone genius.

Instead, QS has produced an analysis of the world’s most productive universities for research, and it contains some surprises. Using data from Scopus, the Elsevier company that provides publication and citation data for all our rankings, we looked first at the raw number of papers produced by the world’s universities between 2007 and 2011. It shows that Cambridge, the top university in the world in the QS World University Rankings, is not one of the world’s top ten institutions when it comes to research volume.

We find that the top research producer is the University of Toronto in Canada, not an institution in the US or the UK as might be expected. Toronto is not even Canada’s top-ranked university. It was 23 in the QS Rankings in 2011/12, six places behind McGill at 17.

This analysis shows that two institutions, Toronto and Harvard, are clear world leaders in research production. They had 64,470 and 64,061 “records” in Scopus over the five years we examined. A record is normally a paper in a journal, although Scopus also captures some monographs, book chapters and other scholarly products. This amount of material puts these two well ahead of the field. Third-placed Michigan produced only 52,804 Scopus records in the same period.

Despite Toronto’s success, the immense research spending of the US gave it six of the top 10 slots in this ranking. Toronto, Sao Paulo in Brazil, University College London in the UK and Tokyo in Japan take the other four places.

But a different picture emerges when we examine the impact of this research. Looking at the number of citations which each university’s papers and other outputs attracts, Harvard emerges as world number one, followed by Johns Hopkins. Toronto falls to third place. In addition, Oxford and Cambridge are in the top ten for citations but not for overall volume.

Our research also illuminates the publish-or-perish culture of modern research. It is at its most intense in medicine, and especially in the US. We find that the world’s top nine universities by citations per paper are in the US, with the tenth in Israel. Of these, seven including the top institution, Rockefeller, are specialist medical institutions and the others, including Harvard, house significant medical schools.

But is American dominance of research output bound to continue? We also looked at the fastest-growing research producers. Here none of the top 10 is in the US. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia, is top of this listing, having gone from no Scopus records in 2007 to 671 in 2011. Second is Jiangnan University in China, up from 107 records to 1,286. This top ten includes a creditable three universities in Malaysia, two in France, and one each in Saudi Arabia, China, India, Russia and Indonesia. Three of them had over 1,000 publications in 2011, suggesting that they are serious about building their research standing.

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