Irrational rationality: critique of metrics-based evaluation of researchers and universities

According to one of the most consulted of the global university rankings services, the QS World University Rankings 2022, the University of Toronto is the top ranked university in Canada. It shouldn’t take more than a brief pause to reflect on this statement to see the fiction in what is presented as objective empirical information (pseudoscience). In the real world, it is mid-June, 2021. The empirical “facts” on which QS is based are still in progress, in a year of pandemic with considerable uncertainty. It is not possible to complete data on 2021 until the year is over. Meanwhile, QS is already reporting stats for 2022; perhaps they are psychic?

Scratching slightly at the surface, anyone with even a little bit of familiarity with the universities in Canada is probably aware that the University of Toronto is currently under a rare Censure against the University of Toronto due to a “serious breach of the principles of academic freedom” in a hiring decision. Censure is a “rarely invoked sanction in which academic staff in Canada and internationally are asked to not accept appointments, speaking engagements or distinctions or honours at the University of Toronto, until satisfactory changes are made”. I don’t know the details of the QS algorithms, but I think it’s fair to speculate that neither support for academic freedom or a university’s ability to attract top faculty for appointments, speeches, distinctions or honours is factored in, or if factored in, weighted appropriately.

Digging just a little bit deeper, someone with a modicum of understanding of the university system in Canada and Ontario in particular would know that the University of Toronto is one of Ontario’s 23 public universities, all of which have programs approved and regularly reviewed for quality by the same government, and funded under the same formulae and provide the same economic support for students. Degrees at a particular level are considered equivalent locally and courses are often transferable between institutions. When not under censure, the University of Toronto is indeed a high quality university; so is the University of Ottawa, where I work, Carleton (the other Ottawa-based university), and all the other Ontario universities. Specific programs frequently undergo additional accreditation. My department offers a Master’s of Information Studies program that is accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). Both the Ontario government and ALA require actual data in their QA / accreditation process. This includes evidence of strategic planning, but not guesswork about future output.

If QS is this far off base in their assessment of universities in the largest province of a G7 country (the epitome of the Global North), how accurate is QS and other global university rankings in the Global South? According to Stack (2021) and the authors of the newly released book Global University Rankings and the Politics of Knowledge http://hdl.handle.net/2429/78483 global university rankings such as QS and THE and the push for the Global South to develop globally competitive “world class universities” are more about reproducing colonial relations, marketizing higher education and commercializing research than assuring high quality education. The attention paid to such rankings distracts universities and even countries from what matters locally. As Chou points out, the focus on rankings leads scholars in Taiwan to publish in English rather than Mandarin although Mandarin is the local language. A focus on publishing in international, English language journals creates a disincentive to conduct research of local importance almost everywhere.

My chapter in this work focuses on the intersection of critique on metrics-based evaluation of research and how this feeds into the university rankings system. The first part of the chapter Dysfunction in knowledge creation and moving beyond provides a brief history and context of bibliometrics and the development of traditional and new metrics-based approaches and major critique and advocacy efforts to change practice (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and the Leiden Manifesto). The unique contribution of this chapter is critique of the underlying belief behind both traditional and alternative metrics-based approaches to assessing research and researchers, that is, the assumption that impact is good and an indicator of quality research and therefore it makes sense to measure impact, with the only questions being whether particular technical measures of impact are accurate or not. For example, if impact is necessarily good, then the retracted study by Wakefield et al. that falsely correlated vaccination with autism is good research by any metric – many academic citations both before and after publication, citations in popular and social media and arguably a factor in the real-world impact of the anti-vaccination movement and the subsequent return of preventable illnesses like measles and a factor in the challenge of fighting COVID through vaccination. An alternative approach is suggested, using the traditional University of Ottawa’s collective agreement with APUO (union of full-time professors) as a means of evaluation that considers many different types of publications and considers quantity of publication in a way that gives evaluators the flexibility to take into account the kind of research and research output.

References

Morrison, H. (2021). What counts in research? Dysfunction in knowledge creation and moving beyond. http://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/39088 In: Stack, M. (2021). Global University Rankings and the Politics of Knowledge, pp. 109 – 130. http://hdl.handle.net/2429/78483

Stack, M. (2021). Global University Rankings and the Politics of Knowledge. http://hdl.handle.net/2429/78483

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