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Ranking the world's best (and worst) scientific institutions

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A new web app called Mapping Scientific Excellence ranks the world's scientific institutions by discipline and presents this information on an interactive global map.

Above image: Agricultural and Biological Sciences.

The application, which was developed by Lutz Bornmann and colleagues at the Max Planck Society in Germany, visualizes research excellence worldwide in 17 different subject areas.


The team measured the worth of an institution, either a university or research-focused institution, according to the rate at which it produces high-quality scientific papers, and by 'high-quality' they mean papers that are frequently cited.

The site counts the number of papers produced by an institution and tallies how many of them are among the top 10% of the most highly cited. If more than 10% of an institution’s papers are in this category, it gets a positive rating — but if it's less than this, it gets a negative rating. For the visualization, the probability of publishing excellent papers ranges from blue (high probability) through grey (average) to red (low probability).


Bornmann refers to this technique as spatial scientometrics.

Some other examples:


Earth and planetary sciences. Hovering over a circle will reveal the institution in question.


Psychology. Not much happening.


Physics and astronomy. Hmm, Asia, Russia and central Europe not looking so hot.


The maps are also zoomable. This one shows engineering in the USA.



MIT's Technology Review offers some perspective:

The results throw up some surprises. In physics and astronomy, for example, two of the top three institutions in physics and astronomy are Spanish: the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona and ICREA (Institucio Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avancats) also in Barcelona. Ranked 8th, above Harvard and MIT, is Partners Healthcare System, a non-profit healthcare organisation based in Boston that funds research, mostly in the life sciences. And the top ranked UK institute in physics and astronomy is the University of Glasgow, which only just makes the top 100.

In biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology, the top three institutes are more predictable: the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory.


Ranking institutions by number of citations is certainly a good idea, but it's not perfect or complete. Some papers get cited simply because of the supposed esteem of an institution or author. Regional/geographic biases also play an important role. Nor does this ranking system take the relative amount of work of different scientists into account.

Read the entire paper at arXiv: "Ranking and mapping of universities and research-focused institutions worldwide based on highly-cited papers: A visualization of results from multi-level models." The website is at and you can request a password by emailing


[H/t MIT Technology Review]