COVID-19 research boosts university citation impact scores – Times Higher Education

Citation impact scores of Times Higher Education (THE) show how the global higher education sector is working towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their research. Learn how this comes into play in the time of a global health crisis.

Universities that have published medical sciences research relating to COVID-19 saw a substantial increase in their THE World University Rankings citation scores.

Reports from THE’s data team indicate that nineteen institutions saw a significant spike in their citation impact scores between the 2021 and 2022 editions of the ranking. Eleven of these universities hail from mainland China, whereas two came from Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively.

COVID-19 research boosts university citation impact scores – Times Higher Education
Photo by Thirdman from Pexels

An explanation for citation increases

Given that the pandemic’s impact could be felt worldwide, the increase in THE citations impact scores was expected, according to THE Data Science Head David Watkins.

“Research into the disease, and especially work on vaccines, was heavily funded and prioritized, and some papers have attracted more than 20,000 citations within a year of publication,” he explained.

Watkins continued to say that the boosted citation scores will remain visible for an extended period since THE allows a five-year window for publications. He forecasts that other COVID-19-related effects such as reputational impact and income will also be affected in future rankings.

Chinese universities on the helm

In effect, China has overtaken Canada and is currently at par with the Netherlands with 10 institutions in the top 200 of the THE rankings. Overall, the country holds the fifth-highest number of institutions within the said score range.

Dr. Caroline Wagner, chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, stated that the first three or four important articles that came out on COVID-19 were all from China.

“They identified the genome and the initial symptoms, and they have thousands of citations, which is very unusual for a one-year-old article. After that, we saw China and the US and China and Europe collaborating. We see citations to those works also being very high,” she continued.

The institutions with the biggest jump in citation impact score in absolute terms are Capital Medical University, Wenzhou Medical University, and Wuhan University, all of which are in mainland China and saw a score increase of more than 30 points.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Furthermore, the citations boost is part of a broader trend of continued improvement for China.

A recent study, co-authored by Dr. Wagner, revealed that the majority of China’s COVID-related citations were for papers where Chinese institutions had collaborated with leading universities in the US or the UK.

As a result, the Ohio State chairperson said the pandemic had amplified the prominence of some institutions that were less well known before the crisis, such as Wuhan University. However, elite institutions remain to have benefited the most from the spike.

Times Higher Education predicts that the country’s educational progress could skyrocket if less internationally-known Chinese universities also publish influential COVID-19 – related research.

Nevertheless, a boost in citations impact is not guaranteed for lesser-known institutions, since this branch of research “will be increasingly competitive in the future,” as stated by Oxford professor, Simon Marginson.

“It is very difficult to know how these effects will net out. There could be sharp changes year by year or the effects could cancel out to some extent,” he concluded.


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