New Zealand is punching above its weight in its output of top-quality research, with a new index ranking the country above larger nations like Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Overall, New Zealand is placed 30th on the just-released Nature Index - tracking high-quality research of more than 8,000 global institutions and assessing the top 10 Kiwi institutions in 2015 by their contribution to 68 leading journals.

In Earth and environmental sciences, one of New Zealand research's major areas of strength, the country ranked 15th in the world.

University of Otago was the highest-placed institution in New Zealand, having made the largest contribution by share of authorship to high-quality papers last year than any other, with the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington placed second and third, respectively.


"The index shows that many of New Zealand's research strengths are rooted in the benefits and challenges of its position on the globe," Nature Index founder David Swinbanks said.

Swinbanks described the University of Otago as a "leader" in tectonic research.

"Proximity to Antarctica has also led to New Zealand's impressive performance in climate science, work that Victoria University of Wellington has been at the forefront of for decades."

Data for the University of Auckland showed it excelled in the life sciences, including drug discovery and bio-engineering.

New Zealand's top 10 also includes four research institutes: GNS Science (fourth), the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (seventh), AgResearch (ninth) and Malaghan Institute of Medical Research (10th).

University of Canterbury is fifth and Massey University is sixth, and Callaghan Innovation, a government agency supporting high-tech business, was eighth.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the result was a "great endorsement" of the quality of New Zealand's scientific research.

"New Zealand research and researchers are very well-cited and acknowledged around the world as first class, and not just in the physical sciences area."

The upcoming Statement of Science Performance will go into this in more detail, he said.