ERA and building an academic career

As an early career researcher (ECR) hoping to get a postdoctoral fellowship or teaching position I have a significant interest in the manner in which academic output is measured and how decisions on grant funding and jobs are decided.  The ERA (Excellence in Research in Australia Initiative) is a recent attempt by the Australian government to measure the quality of research in this country compared to international standards.  This process leads to a departmental ranking according to their research output, which is expect to have a signficant effect on future research funding.  As might be expected of a system ranking research performance this rating system excludes any consideration of teaching load

This topic seems to be the subject of much water cooler discussion and was recently the focus of a characteristically perceptive blog post by Mick Morrison.  The ERA documents are available through the ARC website, although they are quite a dense and confusing read.  You might find pages 6-14 of this summary from the University of Sydney a better introduction.  The system is broadly based on awarding a number of “points” to academic papers, which includes a consideration of the ranking of the journal the article is published in and the number of co-authors.  Citations also appear to play a (poorly defined) role in ranking output.

This process is having a significant (if anecdotal) effect on the way in which academics spend their time.  It seems to have a particularly strong effect on early career researchers, as they are most likely to be applying for departmental or ARC (Australian Research Council) funded positions.  I’ve been told many times by senior academics that “If you don’t publish in A or A* journals, you don’t have any chance of getting a job”.  This is naturally not explicit policy, but is simply a reflection of academic departments trying to pick the staff who are most likely to boost their rankings.  On one level this is perfectly understandable however is ECR productivity really the best indicator of long term research potential.  I would argue that, in many cases, the publication list of a recent PhD graduate is more controlled by the productivity of their broader research group and their supervisor’s attitude to co-publication.  In some cases those students who develop their research independent of a productive research group (which includes the entire team on every paper) may be better equipped to develop long term research of their own at a new institution.

Despite all of this, my principal concern about the ERA system is that it has pervaded the academic conscious without accessible information on how it actually work being available. Many people seem to understand  the importance of publishing in A* and A journals but no-one has been able to explain (to me anyway) how much better an A ranked journal is than a B journal.  Similarly, many people seem to understand that having multiple co-authors leads to a dilution of the ranking of a publication but nobody seems to understand by how much.  The end result is confusion.  For example I have no idea how to quantify the difference between my 2010 principal authored paper in A rated Geoarchaeology with 5 other authors compares to my 2008 second authored paper with 3 authors in A rated Antiquity.
 The lack of clear information on this, probably reflects the ARC’s desire to retain flexibility in the system.  In a recent interview at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism Liz Visher from the ARC said “ERA’s methodology accommodates flexibility of evaluation using discipline-specific practices and expert knowledge, so there is no formulaic way of enforcing the use of ranked journals to each discipline”.  This inclusion of this flexibility is admirable however still leaves me with no concrete information on which to base my publication strategy in the future.

Perhaps the fact that academics in Australia seems so willing to make publication decisions based on small amounts of anecdotal information is telling of the state of research in Australia of itself.  Ironically, comment on the ERA process seems confined to boasts about a particular university’s performance or comment on the rankings of a particular journal, rather than critical analysis of the process itself. 

It seems inevitable that society will continue to demand that academic performance be measured and I accept that how I measure up to the assessment criteria will determine how my career progresses.  On this basis I call on the ARC to provide more clear, easily accessible information on exactly how my papers are assessed so I can make informed decision on how best to undertake and disseminate my research in the future.

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