Clinical medicine research league

If you were asked to guess which countries are the most influential in clinical medicine research, measured in terms of published output and citations, which constitute your top 5? Well, the journal Times Higher Education has just published rankings based on data collected between 2000 and 2010 by Thomson Reuters, the journal’s new partners in the global rankings exercise. Before I looked, I guessed the top 5 would be, in this order: the United States, the UK, Germany, Japan and France. I had reasons for guessing this way.

But how wrong I was. According to the table, the top 5 are Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland. Really? Belgium beats the US? Well actually no, they don’t. I mean, at all. What the compilers have done is to rank the countries in terms of citations per paper. So Finland, with 21,085 papers over the decade, has 386,878 citations, or 18.35 citations per paper. The United States however, weighing in at number 7, only managed 17.21 citations per paper. But hang on, that was based on 692,884 papers and 11,927,881 citations – and so I am wondering whether you could really say that Finland (or Belgium) had influenced medical research more than the United States.

Clearly academics from Finland have been doing a great job in attracting attention for their published work. But on this particular methodology, if you wanted to be the most ‘influential’ country you would choose your very best, world leading academic and enter him or her, and sack all the others so they would not pollute the data. I am mentioning this not in order to make some smart little point, but because if league tables are to tell us something we need to be careful to work out exactly what that is.

Actually, my own guess turned out to be 100 per cent correct, if you equate influence with the actual numerical output. And so I hope that as the next generation of rankings is revealed shortly the data will be genuinely useful and will be used responsibly. The Times Higher has an honorable record on this regard, and I hope that this will be re-affirmed.

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5 Comments on “Clinical medicine research league”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I am not sure what the problem is. The page linked doesn’t mention influence. If you define it as absolute number of papers or citations than this one, which is based on averages, will differ.
    Like all indices and indicators, such tables are useful only insofar as they answer an interesting question. So what is the question that THE is trying to answer and is it the same as the one you are interested in? Clearly not I would think. An absolute based table will indeed reveal that the US is more influential than plucky Belgium. Personally I don’t find it that interesting although if Belgium somehow exceeded the US by this criterion it probably would be.
    Imagine, for example, one wanted to know which countries were the biggest beer drinkers. I think you would find that people in the US drink more in total than (even) the Belgians because there are a lot more of them. So its only interesting to look at the average or the median.
    I think its obvious that what they have in mind here is quality – and this is moderately interesting- so you need to control for size somehow.

    • Perry Share Says:

      And of course, if you were to ask who made the superior beer, the Belgians would win hands down!

      So this raises the question of what rankings are for, such as academic rankings. The Sunday Times HE rankings, for example, are largely influenced by entrants’ CAO points and by the number of first class honours degrees awarded. Given the issues (often raised on this blog, and elsewhere) about a) the points system and b) ‘grade inflation’, one would have to ask whether such measures are useful or desirable.

      The neo-liberal obsession with ranking things, based on mythical notions of ‘choice’, is not necessarily a constructive way to conduct education or research policy.

      That said, it is interesting to see that Finland (yet again) has emerged as a leader in the knowledge economy. They must be doing something right that we could perhaps learn from.

    • Kevin, it says ‘top nations in clinical medicine’. Same thing. Finland is not more of a ‘top nation’ than the US, by any stretch of the imagination. My use of the term ‘influential’ actually came from a THE tweet linking to the table.

  2. Phil Baty Says:

    Just to clarify — these mini tables are based exclusively on bibliometrics and we publish them every week. For the official 2010 Times Higher Education World Universtiy Rankings, we use 13 separate indicators across all aspects of university activity. Citations are just one of many measures. Read more at

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