Tuesday, September 05, 2006

So That's how They Did It

For some time I've been wondering how the panels for the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World University Ranking peer review in 2004 and 2005 were chosen. THES have been very coy about this, telling us only how many were involved, the continents they came from and the broad disciplinary areas. What they have not done is to give any information about exactly how these experts were selected, how they were distributed between countries, what the response rate was, exactly what questions were asked, whether resondents were allowed to pick their own universities, how many universities they could pick and so on. In short, we are given none of the information that would be required from even the most lackadaisical writer of a doctoral dissertation.

Something interesting has appeared on websites in Russia and New Zealand. Here are the links. The first is from the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science http://www.sao.ru/lib/news/WScientific/WSci4.htm

The second is from the University of Auckland, New Zealand
http://www.aus.ac.nz/branches/auckland/akld06/AUS-SP.pdf.

The document is a message from QS, the consultants used by THES for their ranking exercise, soliciting respondents for the 2005 peer review. It begins with a quotation from Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, London: "you need smart people to recognise smart people".

As if being acknowledged a smart person who can recognise smart people were not enough, anyone spending five minutes filling out an online form will qualify for a bunch of goodies, comprising a discount on attending the Asia Pacific Leaders in Education Conference in Singapore, a one month trial subscription to the THES, a chance to win a stand at the World Grad School Tour, a chance to qualify for a free exhibition table at "these prestigous events" and a chance to win a BlackBerry personal organiser.

It is quite common in social science research to pay survey participants for their time and trouble but this might be a bit excessive. It could also lead to a bias in the response rate. After all, not everybody is going to get very excited about going to those prestigous events. But some people might and they are more likely to be in certain disciplines and in certain places than others.

But the most interesting thing is the bit at the top of the Russian page. The message was addressed not to any particular person. but just to "World Scientific Subscriber" . World Scientific is an online collection of scientific journals. One wonders whether QS had any way of checking who they were getting replies from. Was it the head of the Observatory or some exploited graduate student whose job was to check the e-mail? Also, did they send the survey to all World Scientitific subscribers or just to some of them or only to those in Russia or Eastern Europe?

So now you know what to do if you want to get on the THES panel of peer reviwers. Subscribe to World Scientific and, perhaps, a few other online subscription services or work for an institution that does. With a bit of luck you will be recognised as a real smart person and get a chance to vote your employer and your alma mater into the Top 300 or 200.

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