Growing reputation boosts EPFL in world rankings

In the field of engineering, EPFL moved up in two of the three major world university rankings this year and kept the same place in the third. EPFL’s growing international reputation and its continuing solid score in terms of papers published and researchers cited were behind this upward trend. In addition, the 2012 edition of the School of Engineering’s Quantitative Ranking of Engineering Disciplines (QRED), which is calculated solely on the basis of bibliometric data, has just been completed and shows very positive results for bioengineering and materials science at EPFL.

All of the three main world university rankings – the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), the QS World University Ranking (QS) and the Times Higher Education World University Ranking (THE) – place EPFL in the top 30 in the field of engineering. And EPFL keeps moving up the tables year after year. Why is EPFL doing so well? To find out, let’s take a closer look at each of these rankings and how EPFL has progressed.


QS ranking: improved employer reviews and an increase in publications
Let’s start by looking at the QS ranking, which was published jointly with the Times Higher Education ranking between 2004 and 2009 and is now published independently. Both of these rankings place particular emphasis on a university’s international reputation, which for a long time penalized EPFL’s score. However, since 2007 the tides have been turning, and this year even brought some very pleasant surprises.

Out of a total of 2,500 universities, EPFL went from 28th place last year to 22nd this year in the QS Engineering and Technology category. This progression was in part due to the increase in the number of citations per paper, which rose from 4.91 to 5.55. However, it was also driven by EPFL’s improved reputation among employers and peers, which accounted for 50% of the final score. It would seem that reputation, which is determined by conducting surveys of employers and researchers from around the world, was what really tipped the balance this year. The graph below is for the EPFL as a whole, but the data is also applicable to engineering, according to experts. 


"EPFL’s international visibility is increasing, thanks to recent public relations efforts and the visibility of certain flagship projects such as the Human Brain Project or Clean Space One, which made front pages around the world," states Dimitrios Noukakis, EPFL’s expert on world university rankings. "We also attract some very well-known professors, which provides great visibility for the Institute."

Times Higher Education: second best university under 50 years old
EPFL has also moved up the THE ranking in recent years, although the 2012 table has not yet been published.
Among the indicators used for this ranking – teaching, research, citations and international outlook – reputation-related indicators account for more than a third of the final score.
From 2010 to 2011, the EPFL went from 44th to 20th place out of a total of 200 universities in the engineering and technology category. In the European ranking, EPFL came in 5th behind Cambridge, Oxford, EPFZ and Imperial College. This uptrend was driven by a sharp improvement in EPFL’s international reputation in teaching and research as well as a strong score in terms of citations (86.5 points out of 100).

A focus on reputation
Times Higher Education publishes another league table that is based solely on reputation. Here too, the EPFL as a whole moved upwards, going from the 71-80 group in 2011 to the 61-70 group in 2012.
Aware that reputation-related indicators can penalize younger universities – like EPFL – THE also published a ranking of the top 100 universities under 50 years old. This ranking has a reduced weighting for subjective indicators of academic reputation. It places EPFL as the second best university in the world under 50 years old.

Shanghai: EPFL still in good position
In what is probably the best-known ranking – the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), or "the Shanghai Ranking" as it is also known – EPFL once again scored well in 2012. Unlike QS and THE, the Shanghai Ranking, in its engineering/Technology and Computer Science section, is based solely on bibliometric data and does not include any reputation-related indicators. As a result, engineering at the EPFL has always been well placed among the 1,200 universities that the Shanghai Jiao Tong University has reviewed since it first began the ranking in 2003.

In the Engineering, Technology and Computer Science category, EPFL went from 20th place last year to 18th this year, overtaking the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). EPFL also came in above EPFZ, which ranked 39th. The Schools of Engineering (STI), Computer and Communication Sciences (IC), Basic Sciences (SB), and Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) all contributed to this solid performance, which was the result of the increase from 86.3 to 88.7 in the score given for the number of papers published in influential journals.

In Europe, EPFL remained in second place behind the University of Cambridge. To topple Cambridge and take first place, EPFL would need to increase the number of highly cited researchers – EPFL has already overtaken Cambridge in terms of articles indexed in the Web of Science and the number of papers published in the top 20% of journals.

EPFL’s performance in these three rankings shows that its reputation in the field of engineering has been growing steadily since 2007 and is now really starting to take off – building a solid reputation takes time. What’s more, the figures for scientific production, i.e. papers and citations, are extremely encouraging and must be maintained.

QRED: first bioengineering, now materials science
The excellent quality of the papers published at EPFL was also demonstrated in the School of Engineering’s (STI) QRED study, which is based solely on bibliometric data. First launched in 2011, this ranking was initially designed for internal use, to benchmark STI institutes against those of other universities. In the end, STI decided to publish the results for information purposes. Previously focused exclusively on bioengineering, this year’s survey also looked at materials science, and the results speak for themselves.

The ranking includes 28 universities, with 11 US universities and 17 European universities. As with the other world rankings, US universities dominate the top echelons. EPFL ranks 10th worldwide and 4th within Europe.

The two parameters used are the number of papers indexed in the Web of Science in 2009 (weighting of 50%) and the number of times these papers were cited in the following two years (weighting of 50%). "This year we improved the methodology relative to that used in QRED 2011, which covered only bioengineering," indicates Natacha Blanc, the statistician in charge of the project. "This time we only included full professors, associate professors, adjunct professors and tenure-track assistant professors, and we left out senior scientists, research associates and visiting scholars. We also included citations that appeared in the two years following publication instead of just one year after publication," she adds. Overall, the study covered 720 professors, 5,000 papers and close to 45,000 citations.

Some surprising results
Some of the results of QRED 2012 are somewhat unexpected. MIT, for example, takes only 12th place, coming in two notches behind EPFL. "MIT is at the top in terms of citations per paper but falls behind in terms of papers per professor. EPFL’s results are more balanced, with similar rankings for both indicators (number of papers and citations per paper). Natacha Blanc also points out that at EPFL "one professor out of every five is in the top 10% of professors in terms of citations per paper published. The citation rate is therefore excellent." Leading the ranking is the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). It has excellent scores both for the number of papers published and the number of citations per paper. And what can EPFL do to improve its ranking? "Increase the number of papers published while maintaining the same number of citations per paper."

A quick Q&A with Harm-Anton Klok, Director of the Institute of Materials

Are you surprised by the outcome of the ranking?
No, I think EPFL is doing well, and we certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. Our score is close to that of EPFZ and Cambridge, which seems right to me.

Will we one day be able to compete with the USA?
Yes, why not? We have the means and the infrastructure to reach the top of the ranking. It’s true that the US has been strong in materials science for a long time, but we can get there too.

And what do you think can be done to improve the Institute of Materials’ score?
Our score should improve quite soon. In recent years, we’ve hired some really prolific researchers from some of the biggest universities. For example, we now have on our staff two former MIT professors whose scientific production was not included in the current ranking. Patrick Aebischer’s promotional work and his energy have made these kinds of hires possible. We also have to make sure that the people who are already here continue to do top quality work.

Bioengineering: still number one in Europe
Compared with 2011, EPFL remained stable in the 2012 bioengineering ranking, which includes 15 universities (9 in Europe and 6 in the States). It stayed in third place behind UCSD and MIT in the world ranking and kept its top spot in Europe. Although there was no change in the top three, things did change lower down the table. The University of Oxford went up from 12th to 5th place, while Imperial College rose from 11th to 4th. These differences are most likely due to the new methodology adopted by the team of statisticians. "By selecting professors only, we excluded certain researchers at these universities who don’t publish any papers. As a result, the average number of publications per professor rose considerably," states Natacha Blanc. Now we just have to wait and see whether EPFL can keep hold of its number one spot in Europe in the years to come.

Interview with Jeffrey Hubbell, Director of the Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering

Are you satisfied with the results of the 2012 QRED rankings?
Yes, very much so. This classification confirms ur own perspectives of how we stand in relation to other universities. It shows that we are very competitive in Europe and the United States. Of course we are still a long way behind some institutions like MIT, but we are trying to attain their level of excellence.

Is it really possible to compete with that kind of university?
Of course. Our bioengineering department is young, dating from only  2004. Many of our professors who joined over the last few years are only at the beginning of their academic careers. They will no doubt continue to increase in publishing over the next few years, which will improve our statistics again. However, our main goal is not to get the best results in the ranking, above all we want to guarantee a level of excellence in our department.

Do you find that the new methodology of QRED is adequate?
Being strictly data-determined, the methodology is totally valid and much more impartial than some other rankings. There has been a huge job in trying to distinguish between the professors of each university, leaving aside from the analysis the strictly teaching staff, who may not publish much, if it all. As far as citations are concerned, it would be good to take a longer period into account, but even the two-years period considered is already a reasonable amount of time that gives good insight into the current performance of the peer group.


Ranking by subject
It’s worth noting that there is a growing trend towards ranking universities by subject field, as is the case with QRED. Since 2011, the QS ranking, for instance, has carried out separate analyses of different subjects, and mechanical engineering and electrical engineering already have their own rankings.


Indicators for each ranking

QS ranking:
Reputation-related indicators make up 50% of the overall score.
– Peer review (40%)
– Employer review (10%)
– Citations per faculty member, calculated using the SciVerse Scopus database (20%)
– Faculty student ratio (20%)
– Proportion of international students (5%)
– Proportion of international faculty members (5%).

THE ranking:
– Teaching (30%)
– International outlook (5%)
– Industry income (2.5%)
– Research (volume and reputation) (30%)
– Citations (32.5%)

– Number of highly cited researchers (HiCi)
– Number of articles indexed in the Web of Science, an online catalogue of university data (PUB)
– Percentage of papers published in top 20% of journals (TOP).


– Number of scientific publications per professor (50%) (the term "publication" includes articles and conference proceedings.)
-Number of citations per publication (50%) two years after publication.


Leiden ranking: EPFL number one in Europe
Based solely on bibliometric data, the internationally recognized Leiden ranking analyzes 500 universities and sheds an interesting light to the matter. However, it does not focus on institutes, but only on schools as whole. In 2012, EPFL ranks 12th worldwide, and 1st at the European level. ETHZ, by comparison, comes in 18th in the global ranking, and ranks 2nd in Europe.