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Questionable science behind academic rankings


For institutions that regularly make the Top 10, the autumn announcement of university rankings is an occasion for quiet self-congratulation, reports the New York Times. When Cambridge beat Harvard for the No. 1 spot in the QS World University Rankings this September, Cambridge put out a press release. When Harvard topped the Times Higher Education list two weeks later, it was Harvard’s turn to gloat. But the news that Alexandria University in Egypt had placed 147th on the list — just below the University of Birmingham and ahead of such academic powerhouses as Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (151st) or Georgetown in the United States (164th)–was cause for both celebration and puzzlement. Alexandria’s Web site was quick to boast of its newfound status as the only Arab university among the top 200. Ann Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education magazine, issued a statement congratulating the Egyptian university, adding “any institution that makes it into this table is truly world class.”

But researchers who looked behind the headlines noticed that the list also ranked Alexandria fourth in the world in a subcategory that weighed the impact of a university’s research–behind only Caltech, M.I.T. and Princeton, and ahead of both Harvard and Stanford…

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