Australian universities’ online visibility met with criticism in new Webometrics rankings


While Canadian universities have seen their reputation improve in the Webometrics University Rankings, the same is not true for Australian institutions, whose levels of online visibility has been criticized in this years report. Webometrics, the product of the innovative Cybermetrics Lab, itself a part of the Spanish Research Council, ranks university performance in terms of their commitment to providing student-facing evidence of teaching materials, research findings, international outreach, and open access materials; all on the web. Webometrics has nothing to do with graphic design or website accessibility, it instead uses an intricate system of their own creation to quantify the extent to which global universities use the Internet to spread, transfer and exchange knowledge.

Australian universities’ success has not been found to correlate with that of the big four university rankings: THE Rankings, ARWU SHJT Rankings, US News, and QS World, all of which are usually conducted on the basis of surveys and bibliometric methods. Yet it is the stated aim of Webometrics to motivate rather than hierarchize, to press for institutions to provide credible evidence of their activities, and reconsider the scope of their web visibility. This innovative method gives international students the opportunity to gauge academic output with a unit of measurement everyone understands; web presence.

Whereas the more widely used bibliometric approach capitalizes on research performance, the Webometric method uses different indicators to research a comparative and often correlative result. This also levels the playing field for universities who are not research-led but understand the value of reaching out to their international alumni and prospective student base. Many universities are penalized in the Webometrics rankings by maintaining more than one web presence, or a sub-site that diverges from the parent brand. Without doubt Australian universities have fallen into this trap, with only 3 institutions making the top 100 and only 5 making it into the global top 200. Here is the top 10 in full, with global positioning stated in brackets:

1 (82) University of Melbourne

2 (96) University of New South Wales

3 (98) University of Queensland

4 (101) Australian National University

5 (101) Monash University

6 (204) Deakin University

7 (216) University of Adelaide

8 (297) University of Western Australia

9 (331) University of Sydney

10 (333) University of Tasmania

When compared to this year’s THE Rankings, Webometrics finds the University of Melbourne 50 places lower in their world positioning. But this does not compare to the disastrous result suffered by the University of Sydney, which Webometrics finds to be almost 300 places lower than their THE ranking. Both the University of Queensland and Monash University hold similar positions to their rankings in the big four, and some institutions gain prominence through the idiosyncratic system. The University of Adelaide and the University of Tasmania both feature in the top 10 by Webometrics’ logic, underlining the methodology’s ability to restore the reputations of sidelined institutions. Due to the fact that most other tables are structured using a restrictive and fluctuating set of performance indicators, Webometrics’ use of web-based indicators covers both formal publications and informal scholarly communication.  The result will not come as welcome reading to many in the Australian university sector but in many ways that is the intention of the Cybermetrics Lab. While prospective students can remain calm in the knowledge that the traditional hierarchy is little altered, Australian universities should begin to consider performance indicators that highlight online visibility if they want to compete in the largely-online globalized world.