Initially created as a marketing and benchmarking tool, global university rankings have evolved into a part of research evaluation and policy initiatives. Governments around the world, concerned about the low rankings of national universities, have launched numerous excellence initiatives in higher education. The aim of this study is to provide an overview of the literature on the use of university rankings in research evaluation and excellence initiatives. A systematic review of the literature on rankings in the context of research evaluation and excellence initiatives was performed. The majority of the review is based on English-language sources, but the review also covers literature from Russia, where the role of rankings is emphasized by their mention in the title and goal of the policy project 5top100. In addition, the review also includes gray literature. The general academic consensus is that rankings cannot be used in research assessment, though a few authors have a positive or neutral attitude. The literature reveals a lot of issues such as technical and methodological flaws; biases of different nature, including bias towards research in evaluation of both universities and individual researchers; conflicts of interest; and risks to national identity. However, we must acknowledge the complexity of rejecting rankings.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

Handling Editor: Vincent Larivière

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For a full description of the license, please visit