One man can make an “impact”

Mohamed el Naschie, Egyptian mathematician, has been much discussed recently for his single-handed effort in taking a journal that he edits, “Chaos, Solitons and Fractals”, to the “top” of its field (according to the most widely-misused metric, the “impact factors” published by Thomson Scientific): it had an “impact factor” of well above 3 (that is, each of its articles was on average cited 3 times or more). And it was all because of him, because (1) he was the editor; (2) he published extensively in his own journal, and (3) he cited his own articles extensively. He is not alone in this: some similar cases are discussed in this preprint by Arnold and Fowler. There is also a blog devoted entirely to El Naschie’s achievements.

Now it seems his journal was not the only beneficiary of his self-largesse. From this New York Times article:

For institutions that regularly make the Top 10, the autumn announcement of university rankings is an occasion for quiet self-congratulation.

When Cambridge beat Harvard for the No. 1 spot in the QS World University Rankings this September, Cambridge put out a press release. When Harvard topped the Times Higher Education list two weeks later, it was Harvard’s turn to gloat.

But the news that Alexandria University in Egypt had placed 147th on the list — just below the University of Birmingham and ahead of such academic powerhouses as Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (151st) or Georgetown in the United States (164th) — was cause for both celebration and puzzlement. Alexandria’s Web site was quick to boast of its newfound status as the only Arab university among the top 200….

But researchers who looked behind the headlines noticed that the list also ranked Alexandria fourth in the world in a subcategory that weighed the impact of a university’s research — behind only Caltech, M.I.T. and Princeton, and ahead of both Harvard and Stanford.

Like most university rankings, the list is made up of several different indicators, which are given weighted scores and combined to produce a final number or ranking. As Richard Holmes, who teaches at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, wrote on his University Ranking Watch blog, according to the Webometrics ranking of World Universities, published by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Alexandria University is “not even the best university in Alexandria.”

The overall result, he wrote, was skewed by “one indicator, citations, which accounted for 32.5% of the total weighting.”

And guess who was responsible.

(Nature, John Baez and Jacques Distler all had extensive writeups about the man; all of these have been taken down, apparently due to legal threats. Some of it is archived, without permission, on the El Naschie Watch site linked above. Read the NYT article now, before it disappears too.)

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for the link to El Naschie Watch! I have quoted and linked back to you from this post.

  2. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 16, 2010

    Jason – thanks. Not being a regular follower of your blog, I didn’t realise that you were discussing the university rankings nearly two months ago.

  3. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 16, 2010

    But I should say this: the problem is not El Naschie. The problem is the lazy reliance on impact factors and such metrics. On a lesser scale, it is done by everyone — authors citing their own papers whether relevant or not, journals favouring papers that cite the same journals, and so on. We, the academic community, should not vilify El Naschie: we should thank him for taking this to a parodic extreme.

    If this doesn’t kill the impact factor, nothing will — and I fear nothing will.

  1. Impact Faculty | nOnoScience

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