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The Top Five Research Universities in MENA? Maybe

An early peek at the Times Higher Education’s list of the best research universities in the Middle East and North Africa has selections that may raise some scientists and scholars’ eyebrows:

The Times Higher Education (THE) choices for the top five research institutions in the region are:

– Texas A&M at Qatar

– Lebanese American University

– King Abdulaziz University (Saudi Arabia)

– Qatar University

– American University of Beirut

Strong variation between THE results and other rankings companies may hint at the difficulty of getting robust data in the MENA region and of doing reliable rankings­—problems that rankings critics have long pointed out. THE is tackling the critics head on by releasing its “sneak peek” and then discussing its criteria at a conference later this month.

The placement of the Lebanese American University in second place by THE contrasts with the university’s 52nd position in similar research-based rankings released earlier by U.S. News. Qatar University also had a very different position in the U.S. News rankings, coming in 29th place. Branch-based campuses of a parent university in foreign countries, such as Texas A&M, were not included by U.S. News.  

However, the two lists have some similarities. The American University of Beirut and King Abdulaziz University both placed in the top five of both rankings.

The rest of the universities below fifth place will be revealed at the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit held in Doha February 23 – 24. “The summit will reveal the top 30, which will act as a forum to debate the criteria for the MENA rankings,” says editor of THE rankings Phil Baty.

To judge the research prowess of universities in the region, THE used a metric called “The Field Weighted Citation Impact.” This is the total number of times that a university’s research papers are cited by other scientists in the same field, which is then compared to the average.

With this metric, a single research paper cited many times is more valuable than several papers noticed by only a few researchers. The sample included papers published between 2009 and 2013 in all subject areas.

It is thanks to this heavy focus on quality with less attention given to quantity that pushed the Lebanese American University to its newfound status, says the dean of graduate studies and research, Pierre Zalloua.

“We did well, which I was expecting because we published quite a lot of papers in high-impact journals that ended up being well cited,” says Zalloua, “When you publish in big name journals it skews the result.”

QS University Rankings released its MENA rankings last November, which looked at overall performance on measures such as faculty-to-student ratio and the proportion of staff with Ph.D.s. To gauge research impact QS used the number of citations per paper and the number of papers per faculty member.

The American University of Beirut, which publishes the most research papers in Lebanon, says it welcomes the new rankings, but points out that its volume of output is less important for the metric used by THE.

“AUB is proud to produce more than half of Lebanon’s entire research,” says Provost Ahmad Dallal. “We are also proud to have the highest research output per faculty member in the Arab world,” he added.

The rankings produced by U.S. News were based on a different metric, which took both research performance and total output into account.

While Zalloua, at Lebanese American University, says he’s proud that his university has been acknowledged, he adds that it’s all just part of what he calls the “rankings game” and warns that it should be taken with a grain of salt. Which is just as well, because the Lebanese American University could be moved from its second place depending on the outcome of the Doha summit later this month.

“We understand that western rankings don’t always accurately match performance in the region,” says Baty, “That’s why we’ll debate the criteria.” Some research in the region is only published in Arabic, he says, making it much less likely to be cited outside of the Arab world. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of lower quality, added Baty.

Baty hopes to iron out the creases of ranking universities in the region during the conference—the metrics his publication uses may yet be altered. The final rankings, produced after the consultation summit, will be released at next year’s conference.

That may result in a few shifts of where universities are currently placed, but it’s unlikely to cause a complete overhaul, says Baty. “We’re fairly confident those top five universities will still be high on the list this time next year.”


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