Where are the disruptors ?

It’s a real challenge to locate people who don’t follow established norms and are experimenting with models that don’t fit traditional benchmarks for success in research or teaching. This is true for any field, not just science. Fortunately the blogosphere is creating its own subculture. Some of the disruptors are active and influential enough to locate through search engines, social networking sites, and conference programming. Also there is a growing alternative conference environment, with Science Online 2011 a great example of using the traditi0nal professional meeting as a springboard for discussion about new communication and research models.

But let’s say you want to make a profession out of disruption (as least as a communication and/or research model). Where should you go? What kinds of campuses are better at creating a culture of change? Where would you have the best chance of success?

One aspect of telling colleagues about changes in scholarly communication is that you have to show prestige, value, and permanence of a new method to convince people it’s worth doing. So part of my job is looking at what are perceived notions of excellence. What do rankings, evaluations, and membership information tell us about a place? A second part of my job is finding speakers to talk about this disruption – in academia, publishing, and research. I’ve found locating people the most challenging part. Getting them to speak, once I’ve found them, is not that difficult.

One discovery I’ve made is that the innovators (or at least many I’ve met so far in science) are not usually where you would expect them to be. They’re not at Harvard, or Yale, Berkeley or even many of the land grant universities in the Midwest. You would think, with all of the rhetoric about our best-funded universities being hotbeds of innovation in research ideas and productivity, that you’d see more people form there at meetings about open science, open access publishing, etc. With a few exceptions, this doesn’t appear to be true.

So I decided to look at this phenomenon in more detail. I wanted to compare some metrics about successful institutions in academia and see if there was a way to identify the disruptors from this data. So what kinds of lists in academia do many people look to for the best students, the best programs, high research productivity, and overall prestige of an institution?

It turns out there aren’t that many. I decided to use lists that were openly available to the public (which wasn’t too limiting), limited to the US (since international data on academia is pretty sparse) and limit to PhD/research universities, since the 4 and 2 year schools have less emphasis on research.

For the purposes of this experiment I limited my data to three sources:

  • US News and World Report Top National Universities (top 100 ranked institutions – this came to 104 total) – 2011 data
  • Association of American Universities Members (63 total, I omitted the any Canadian institutions on the list. There were only 2 so it was statistically insignificant.) – list available as of Jan 14, 2011
  • Association of Research Libraries Members (126 total but I omitted the Canadian institutions and non-profit organizations not a part of academia, such as the Library of Congress.) – list available as of Jan 14, 2011

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