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There is a lot at stake when academic rankings are announced. A high ranking can attract more funding, more research and collaboration opportunities, and offer clarity and direction in creating a strong research plan. In other words, a higher academic reputation increases an institution’s opportunities to raise its reputation and research impact.

“It’s quantitative,” says Caroline Whitacre, vice president for research at Ohio State University. “Everyone knows what a number one or two means, and if you go from a 10 to 15, everybody can easily assess what that means. There’s sort of a good/bad toggle switch that you can easily understand, no matter the discipline or level of scientific training.”

Collaboration and funding

One of the most practical benefits of a higher academic rating is the increased opportunity for collaboration and funding. Sometimes this effect is direct, sometimes it's indirect, but academic ranking and reputation play an important role in these crucial academic endeavors.

For institutional collaboration and government funding, academic rankings may play an indirect role. The exact needs of a team or the strength of a grant application are usually the most important factor. Ranking is secondary and is only of indirect importance.

The corporate world is a completely different story though. For industrial partners, academic ratings provide a critical way to evaluate potential institutions.

“Industrial researchers and executives don’t know the academic space as well as academics,” Whitacre says. “The rankings are a proxy for the value of the institution, so they really utilize those metrics because they’re less familiar with ‘What are the priorities of Montana State, Yale, MIT?’ They don’t know that.”

Since partnering with institutions is a somewhat complicated process, companies tend to be very selective about which institutions they partner with. Whitacre says it’s not atypical for a company to have about 10 academic partners. This partnership is the basis of many collaboration and funding opportunities for universities, so a higher ranking directly leads to more of these opportunities.

Furthermore, if a research team brings in a member from a lower-ranked institution, the company will likely question that more than if the same researcher had come from a higher-ranked institution.

A higher academic ranking will also attract more students and international faculty. International faculty members present a unique opportunity to increase research impact, because recent studies have shown a direct correlation between varied authorship and citations.

“So if you have a paper with authors from more than four countries represented, that had much higher citations than a paper with [citations from fewer countries],” says Whitacre. “It went up dramatically, and it’s about diversity of ideas. Just bringing multiple different ideas to the table makes for a much richer research conversation.”

Clarity and direction in a strong research plan

Perhaps the most important use of academic rankings, though, is in developing a strong research plan. Ratings tell institutions where they’re strongest and, therefore, where to focus their efforts. They can guide interdepartmental collaboration efforts to truly maximize a school’s academic impact.

“I’m from a pretty large research institution. It’s about 104 different departments, and we can’t be number one in 104 disciplines. Some are going to be higher priorities than others,” Whitacre says. “And the big leaps are at the interface between disciplines, so it’s where the newer ideas came from.”

An institution rated highly in five different disciplines can figure out collaboration ideas between those five disciplines. That allows those departments to work together to advance the institution’s reputation and ranking even more.

Whitacre says rankings are fundamentally a concept deeply tied to reputation.

“A percentage of the overall ranking an institution has is based on reputation, so it’s circular because where an institution lands in the rankings then further affects reputation,” she says. “So let’s say an institution gets better in the rankings, then that’s really lauded.”

See how you can start measuring your impact to better understand your ranking. Download Impact Metrics.