Amanda Goodall, a doctoral student in strategic management at Warwick Business School, UK, had a hunch, based on her experience working for college officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom: The world's elite research universities put a premium on naming elite researchers as their presidents. So she tallied all the citations amassed by presidents of the world's top 100 universities, as judged by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University – "probably the most reliable league table available," according to Goodall.

Since university heads come from different disciplines with inherently different levels of expected output – economics papers can take years to come out, while a productive microbiologist can easily have her name on a dozen papers in a year or more – Goodall assigned each president a "normalized" citation score. That meant the Nobelist David Baltimore, president of sixth-ranked Caltech, who garnered 28,000-odd...

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