A misplaced decimal point has led to the temporary removal of Trinity College Dublin from the latest international university rankings. 

Trinity is not included in the Times Higher Education World University rankings published this evening because of what the rankings body has called an "unintentional submission error" made by the university.

The mistake, it said, is likely to have given the college a ranking that was lower than it should have received. 

This year's Times Higher Education rankings were published yesterday evening but were sent privately to the universities and to the media over the weekend, on the understanding that the data would not be published until Wednesday evening. 

That so-called 'embargoed' data showed both UCD and Trinity College falling out of the top 200 universities internationally.

The two universities were positioned somewhere between 200 and 250th place.

However on Monday, Trinity became aware of what it has described as "a very simple error" in the data that it had submitted and signed off on, for which its ranking was based.

On income derived from research, it was discovered that a decimal point had been inserted in the wrong place.

This dramatically altered the figure in question. When the college alerted the Times Higher Education authorities to the mistake, a decision was taken to remove TCD from this year's rankings while its position is recalculated.

Trinity College has told RTÉ News that the same simple error was also made in forms submitted to the rankings authority the year before.

This means that last year's tables - which showed Trinity College fall from 138th to 160th place - are also likely to be incorrect. The college’s real position is likely to have been higher.  

International tables such as the THE are regarded as important marketing tools by the higher education sector.

When a college is performing well, it uses that information to promote itself. Recently, the fact that Ireland's top universities have been performing badly has been widely cited as evidence of the harmful impact of reduced funding for the sector.

In a statement issued on Sunday - also "embargoed" for use by the media until Wednesday and prior to the TCD error being identified - the Times Higher Education said news that "great international names" like Trinity College and UCD had fallen out of the world top 200 would "send shock waves across the world".

The rankings body blamed "major funding cuts" for the fall.

However, a subsequent press statement issued today asked that any comments relating to Trinity's position be disregarded.

The Trinity College error raises questions as to how rigorously data supplied by individual institutions is checked by the Times Higher Education authorities.

THE has told RTÉ News that it has a series of checks in place which include using publicly available information to verify such data, as well as interrogating any unexpected changes.

It said it engages in "an intensive process over months working with universities".

However, a UK expert on higher education has told RTÉ News that the discovery of the error undermines the very basis of international rankings.

Bahram Bekhradnia, who sits on the board of the Higher Education Authority here and is also president of the UK's Higher Education Policy Institute, said that all rankings are only as good as the data that feeds them.

Mr Bekhradnia said while Trinity College was a respected university which could be relied upon to provide honest data, unfortunately that was not the case with all universities worldwide. 

Mr Bekhradnia said in this instance it appeared that the university had made "an honest mistake" that "went against them", but he questioned what he called the "very limited checking of data" on the part of those who carry out such rankings.

This is not the first time that questions have been raised as to how accurately the Times Higher Education rankings position Irish universities. 

Three years ago UCD's placing fell dramatically from 160th to between 226th and 250th. At the time the college declared itself "puzzled" by the sudden decline and it questioned the methodology.

The next year's tables saw the university restored to the top 200, this time in 176th place.

This year's THE tables again show UCD falling from 176th place to somewhere 200th and 250th place.

They show a rankings rise for two Irish institutions, NUI Galway and the Royal College of Surgeons.

In a press statement NUIG says their advance "reflects the ambition, hard work and creativity of our staff and students".

THE is now recalculating the Trinity College data, based on the new correct data that has been supplied.

The body also compiles tables which rank universities according to academic disciplines. 

In the Physical Sciences rankings - which include Mathematics and Statistics - Trinity College does not feature in the top 100.