The recent release of Stanford Ranking (SR) of researchers globally has drawn wider attention the world over, to an extent that it is deemed to be the touchstone for a nation’s standing in science and technology (S&T), and a blueprint for the future potential for global progress. The rating is based on a pattern of data mining of complex mixing of quality parameters. SR identifies 1,59,683 persons as the top 2% scientists in the world (in 22 main and 176 sub-scientific fields). Of them, 1,492 are Indians (0.93%). Tamil Nadu institutions have been credited with 100-plus researchers.
In curiosity, I made an in-depth study of the ranking of these Tamil Nadu researchers which brought to fore two main surprises: first, many of the researchers receiving SR recognition are not the ones who got any kind of recognition from the nation’s three science academies: Indian National Science Academy (INSA-New Delhi), Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc-Bangalore) and National Academy of Sciences-India (NASI-Allahabad), and second, two Bhatnagar awardees and several academy Fellows could not be seen in the (SR) ranking list.
It is pertinent to point out that the Fellows of the academies and Bhatnagar awardees are the chairpersons/expert members of many S&T committees (for instance, UGC, DST/SERB, DBT, ICMR, ICAR and CSIR) that allot funds for projects, select institutions for special assistance and status such as Centre for Advanced Study in selected fields of science.
In the present context, the SR ranking demands a credibility test of scientists by our science academies. Though expected to vary to some extent in comparison to the SR methodology, the alarming conflicts as indicated above in case of Tamil Nadu (may apply to other States as well if a similar study is done), certainly draws our concern and attention.
Tamil Nadu case
Let us have a closure look of Tamil Nadu scientists whose names appear in the top 2% world ranking (SR). All these scientists are grouped into three categories. The credits to institutions are shared as follows. Category 1: IIT Madras 36; Category 2: State and Central Universities 26 (Annamalai University eight, Bharathiyar University seven, Madurai Kamaraj University, Bharathidasan University, Manonmaniam Sundaranaar University and Alagappa University two each, Madras University, Anna University, and Central University, Thiruvarur one each); Category 3(a): private universities 16 (Vellore Institute of Technology 10, SRM University three, Bharath Institute of Higher Education two and Ramachandra Medical University one); Category 3(b): private colleges/special institutes ~34 (Christian Medical College eight, Loyola College one, and nearly 25 other colleges/institutes one each).
In category 3, we note that some are really benefited from senior scholars who joined these institutions as emeritus scientists after retiring long back in our State universities. Our anguish here is the dismal picture of seven State universities — Madras University, Madurai Kamaraj University, Bharathidasan University, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Alagappa University, Anna University and the Central University (Thiruvarur), which have just one or two rankers.
The recognition received from SR by the researchers (excluding those of the IIT-Madras) shows that out of 61 scientists, nine are Fellows (senior retirees) in one or more of the academies and 52 are non-Fellows.
While IIT-Madras has a score of 36, our prestigious technical star Anna University (whose name is omnipresent in the news in recent past) scores just 1!
If the SR data is valid, authorities/experts from Anna University should come forward to give proof that it is not just an examination conductor of 500-plus engineering colleges in the State. Another point to note — IIT-Madras has 36 scientists in SR, but only two of them are INSA Fellows.
Likely flaws in SR-ranking
In the large-scale data-mining process, the search factor such as names matters much. It is possible for persons with similar identifying factors but working in other fields to get credits wrongly, each benefiting from the accumulated score. The SR group’s study has not missed many achievers (C.N.R. Rao, for instance), but has excluded many notable achievers like M.S. Swaminathan.
Here it is pertinent to note what Professor Bhushan Patwardhan, Vice-Chairman of the UGC, says: “… more than 8,000 predatory journals churn out more than 400,000 items a year, and India contributes more than one-third of the articles in predatory publications …thousands of fake journals had infiltrated the UGC’s ‘white list’ of acceptable publishers…’ (Nature, July 4, 2019).
One is left to wonder if the SR group had inadvertently included such unworthy publications in their ranking process.
From SR data we find the following alarming ratios between number of publications (N) and rank (R) in a few selected fields (Field: N/R). In each field two workers, one with lower N and higher R and the other with higher N and lower R were chosen for analysis. Applied Physics: 513(N)/186(R); 837(N)/3815(R); Artificial Intelligence: 506(N)/10(R); 2530(N)/500(R); Fluids & Plasma: 351(N)/253(R); 531(N)/970(R); Nuclear & Particle Physics: 272(N)/13(R); 3050(N)/43(R); Tropical Medicine: 506(N)/7(R); 3050(N)/43(R); Inorganic & Nuclear Chemistry: 415(N)/2(R); 1640(N)/3(R).
These ratios just indicate that the inflation in N seems to be either from publications in predatory journals or from powerful science managers who can publish articles — even in reputable journals.
Indian S&T monitoring authorities and the science academies have the responsibility to bring forth the true picture of the country’s scientific research potential. And, if SR ranking method is the uncontested winner — our science academies have to explain whether all the scientists in SR are worthy of becoming their Fellows!
If this is not done quickly, it is likely many dubious achievers may soon destroy our academic institutions.
(The author is a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras)