Since 2015, Clarivate has issued annual updates to its Highly Cited Researchers List. The list is all about recognising the world’s top researchers in their chosen field (or fields) as seen through the publication of papers (indexed in the Essential Science Indicators) which have been cited the most during the past ten years (2010-2020). The list ranks the world’s top one per cent of researchers based on citations.

Those familiar with the construct of global rankings know that the list counts 20 per cent towards the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produced by ShanghaiRankings. This helps to explain why many universities have issued press releases over the past two days to celebrate the successes of their top achievers.

This annual update of the HiCi list (CMM Thursday) ended stability in the ARWU, for which it was recognised in its early years. This annual update has also contributed to the inclusion of more Australian universities in the top 500 (CMM, 16 August).

In this commentary, I consider how Australian universities have performed in this year’s edition of the list and put into perspective what it means for next year’s ARWU ranking when it is released in August.

Before I focus on the performance of our universities, let us focus on the changing geopolitical landscape. This helps us to place Australia in the global context and how the global dynamics are rapidly shifting.

Power of geography in research production: the number of highly cited researchers (HiCis) has increased considerably from 3,125 in 2015 to 6,602 in 2021, noting that effective from 2018 the list has included cross field researchers. That is, researchers who are identified as having exceptional performance across several fields. Cross field researchers account for 42.8 per cent of total HiCis globally, compared to 44.8 per cent for Australia, 50.9 per cent for China and 42.1 per cent for the United States.

The list is dominated by researchers from high income economies. 71 per cent of HiCis are from North America and Western Europe, 25 per cent from East Asia and the Pacific. The remaining four per cent are scattered across all other world regions.

Although the United States continues to have the highest number of HiCis (2,223 in 2021), its relative share has decreased 9.8 points from 49.5% in 2015 to 39.7%. Year after year, the United States has seen a decline in its overall share, considerably influenced by the inclusion of cross field researchers.

The United States losses have meant gains for China, which has the second highest number of HiCis. In 2015 China had 144 HiCis which increased to 482 in 2018 and have more than doubled since then to 931 in 2021. China’s share has increased from 4.6 per cent in 2015 to 14.1 per cent in 2021.

The United Kingdom is ranked third in terms of volume with 490 HiCis. For a fifth consecutive year, the UK continues to see a decrease in its overall share of HiCs from 9.9 per cent in 2016 to 7.4 per cent in 2021. The other thing about the United Kingdom is that it is having fewer HiCis year after year since 2019, which may in part be influenced by Brexit.

Australia now has the fourth largest number of HiCis and stepped ahead of Germany. Australia increased by 25 from 305 in 2020 to 330 in 2021. Since 2015, Australia’s share has increased by 1.7 percent points from 3.3 per cent to 5.0 per cent in 2021. Germany had a loss of 15 HiCis from 345 in 2020 to 330 in 2021, which meant a decline of 0.40 points in its overall global share.

Interestingly, Switzerland also experienced a decline in both volume and share of HiCis, with 154 HiCis last year and 102 this year, a loss of 0.9 points in its global share (1.5 per cent this year).

While Germany and Switzerland HiCis  have dropped, The Netherlands, has an increase of 26 HiCis from 181 in 2020 to 207 in 2021. The Netherlands’ global share stands at 3.1 per cent ahead of Canada at 3.0 per cent, with 196 HiCis.

Australian top performers: Of the 330 Australian researchers included in the list, 314 are affiliated to 29 universities. The University of Queensland tops the list with 44, up rom 34 last year. This means Uni Queensland is likely to move up a few places in next year’s ARWU and reducing the gap against Australia’s highest ranked institution, Uni Melbourne at 33rd). Uni Queensland currently ranks 51st globally.

Uni Melbourne is now equal second with UNSW, with 36 HiCis each. Melbourne is unchanged compared to last year and UNSW is up by four from 32 last year. The Uni Sydney is fourth with 30 HiCis, an increase of ten from last year. Let’s see how UNSW and Sydney perform in the volume of papers published in Nature and Science as that is likely to determine whether the overall rank of these two in ARWU remains tight. Currently UNSW ranks 66th and Sydney 69th.

Swinburne University is now seventh in Australia in terms of the number of HiCis (15), behind the University of Adelaide (19) and Monash University (16). In 2018 Swinburne had four and increased to ten in 2019.

Behind Swinburne, UTS has 12, two fewer compared to last year but four fewer compared to 2018.

Based on the results of Clarivate’s 2021 HiCi list we are likely to see some movement in the overall standing of our universities in ARWU. Some institutions are likely to move upwards and some downwards, but we are unlikely to see significant shifts.

The continued improvement of Australia in this list demonstrates our universities are focused on strengthening their research productivity by producing research of global impact as well as of high quality. It also tells us there is a focus on global rankings.

There are several strategies our universities are using which include – targeted recruitment of researchers in key subject areas, targeting top quality journals to boost prospects of increased citations, and fostering collaboration with researchers in leading fields and key countries. This is also evidenced by the high number of cross-field researchers. It also serves to illustrate the imperative to invest in research endeavours, research training and strengthen the capacity of the academic workforce to address many of the societal, economic, and political challenges we face globally.

 HiCi list verification: The compilation of this list is not an easy task and the team at Clarivate is to be commended. Every year around September Clarivate issues a preliminary list and provides early notification to researchers to verify their affiliation. Researchers are encouraged to notify of any change in three to four weeks so that the team at Clarivate can do the final compilation of the list.

Invariably, there are changes and often we see that there are researchers not included in the preliminary list who make it to the final cut. This is a critical point which I would like Clarivate to address, particularly given the fact that a single researcher with an incorrect affiliation can mean a higher or lower overall rank for an institution in ARWU. It would be desirable for Clarivate to allow a window of time for correcting affiliations once the list is made public.

It also means that researchers need to be proactive in ensuring that their affiliation is up to date in Clarivate’s Essential Science Indicators. There is also a role for research administrators to verify the various bibliometric databases researchers’ affiliations and email addresses are valid. A key factor to the integrity of Clarivate’s process is that it is up to researchers to notify Clarivate about changes to affiliations.

In a subsequent commentary I will address some potential issues arising from these lists (e.g., researchers with retracted papers and those with high rates of self-citations).

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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