McGill research rated well

Daniel McCabe

According to the Institute for Scientific Information's influential newsletter Science Watch, McGill ranks high among Canadian universities in several research areas. The December issue of Science Watch analyzes the performance of researchers from 45 Canadian universities in a variety of fields.

The publication looked at how often papers produced by each university's scholars were cited by other researchers from 1990 to 1994. The ISI also assessed the average number of citations each paper produced by Canada's university scholars received during the same period.

In total citations, McGill places first overall in microbiology and neuroscience. The University places second in eight areas: materials science, geosciences, agricultural sciences, clinical medicine, biology & biochemistry, molecular biology, pharmacology and psychology/psychiatry. It ranks third in engineering.

From the ISI's perspective, looking at the average number of citations each paper garners is a fairer way to gauge excellence. "The larger the institution, the more papers tend to be produced and, in most cases, the more citations collected," says Science Watch editor Richard King.

By studying how often individual research papers from different schools are cited, a small but influential team of researchers is put on a more equal footing with colleagues at large institutions like the University of Toronto. "This measure looks at the bang for the buck of each scholarly paper, as judged by other scientists," says King.

Using this measure, the ISI ranks McGill first in microbiology, second in clinical medicine and molecular biology, and third in psychology/psychiatry. "McGill placed well in some of the most highly visible fields," says King. "McGill tends to be especially strong in areas where the groundbreaking research is taking place. These areas are really where the action is."

Adds King, "We see a lot of depth at McGill. The researchers there rank among the top three in many fields."

Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Bernard Robaire says he's generally pleased with the Science Watch report. "There are few fields where we are number one, but overall, we do quite well. We're consistently among the top performers in many different areas."

However, he cautions against placing too much stock in the report. "It's very easy to misinterpret these results," says Robaire. "For instance, the ISI categorizes a research paper by looking at the type of journal it appears in. Our Department of Psychology does well in areas that might not be appropriate for the journals that ISI sees as psychology journals.

"When you look at our strong showing in neuroscience, it probably says more about McGill as an institution than it does about any single department--we have a large number of departments producing papers that are published in neuroscience journals," says Robaire.

"We do very well in Science Watch's microbiology category, but some of the papers that turn up in what are termed microbiology journals are actually produced by our parasitology researchers."

Robaire is also uncomfortable with the way in which certain areas are lumped together in the Science Watch measurements. "Biology and biochemistry are judged as a single field. Our biology and biochemistry departments are quite distinct from one another."

King says his organization's measurements of research quality are among the most valuable indicators of how well universities are doing.

"Publications like Maclean's and Money use a number of subjective measures of performance when they rank universities--they look at things like school reputation, for instance. We're just looking at what scientists themselves cite."

Robaire agrees that ISI-type measurements are going to become more widely used by governments, granting agencies and universities themselves. In fact, McGill recently purchased a database on Canadian research from ISI, albeit a more sophisticated version than the one ISI used for its Science Watch ratings.

"The database we received measures over 90 areas instead of the 20 fields examined by Science Watch." Robaire adds that he hopes to use the database to give McGill an accurate sense of where it stands among its Quebec counterparts and among Canada's top 10 research universities.