Publish (high quality research) or perish

So you may or may not have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet of late, both here and on twitter so I thought it worth a quick post explaining why this is the case: I  can put it down entirely to the need to publish, or perish.

A few months ago I took up a new position and within a few weeks became acutely aware of one of the key metrics for securing a position and advancing your career in academia: ticking boxes within the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Initiative. The ERA is a complex beast and in basic terms it’s a nation wide ranking system tied directly to investment in Higher Education Institutions. This from the Australian Research Council (ARC):

The ERA initiative assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally-recognised experts

There are many dimensions to the ERA but the one that I have become acutely aware of relates to research quality rankings and its implications for early career researchers.

CC image by Flickr User, Emdot (Marya)
'Typewriter of Capricon' (CC Licensed image by Flickr User, Emdot (Marya))

To assess research quality in a systematic fashion, the ARC ranks publications,  grants and other research outputs into categories; for example, the Journal of Archaeological Science as an A* publication (top ranked) is higher ranked than Antiquity (A) or the International Journal of Historical Archaeology (B). A similar situation exists for grants, conferences and so on. John Lamp has a very useful site with full lists of rankings and rankings can shift from year to year. Higher Education Institutions collate information about the overall quality of the research their institutions produce and submit this annually to the ARC. This then impacts upon how much money is directed to the University from the Federal Government. I’m not so much interested here in the way this works, but more on its implications for early career researchers such as myself. I expect similar situations exist in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Let me put it in simple terms: if you want a career in academia in Australia, then you need to direct your efforts into activities that result in research outputs that are ranked highly under the ERA. There are two reasons for this. First, Universities tie internal research funding, applications for promotion and so on to your ERA track record: higher research quality is sought out and actively encouraged from the top tier of the University, down. Second,  to win nationally competitive grants (such as ARC grants) you also need a high quality research record under the ERA. A lack of such funding is not only bad because it can be very difficult to obtain funding to  undertake significant research projects, but also, because grant records also tie back to your prospect for academic promotion.

Hence, academic career advancement is fundamentally tied to the ERA framework: other factors count (such as teaching quality) but I’m yet to be convinced that such metrics have equal importance.

I was recently chatting to a senior colleague here in our Department about this and she suggested that junior academics need to place a significant emphasis on publishing in high ERA ranked journals. Her reasoning was that if you have not produced a reasonable number of such outputs within five years of PhD completion, you are not able to catch up to those who have, which can be detrimental when applying for new positions, research grants and so on. In short, publish high quality papers under the ERA system, or perish.

I enjoy using twitter, reading and writing blog posts, reading forums or email lists, and contributing to Wikipedia entries. Indeed, I often advocate the importance of this  for students and others in terms of getting known and owning your identity on the web. But in terms of research outputs, none of this counts for a thing: in the hour or so I have spent drafting this post I could have completed a final proof of a paper that I’m about to submit to an A ranked journal.  You can see where I am going with this.

The only way I can find time to publish is to grab each and every moment to work on something – anything – and whatever that ‘anything’ is, it is far more important than spending that time on twitter. The #200rule has never had so much relevance. I edited a thesis chapter into the first draft of a paper yesterday while flying across the country and waiting in airports. Tomorrow morning I need to tidy some images for the paper I mentioned above. This is why my activities on the web have declined: once, I saw this as semi-productive downtime and spent it reading my blog or twitter feeds and chunky ‘space opera’ Sci Fi paperbacks.  It’s also impacted in other ways: I now check journal rankings before submitting a paper, and I won’t consider anything below an A. I assume others work this way as well, and I wonder what kind of impacts this might have on academic publishing, particularly on small journals.

I am a great believer in open access academic publishing. Unfortunately though, to have an impact you need an income and if you desire an academic career, then to obtain this income you need to work as an academic. And therein lies my quandry. My advice (and philosophy) is this: if you are serious about making an impact on your discipline and building a career in academia, then re-evaluate how you spend your time on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere on the web. Try and justify (to yourself) how this time will benefit to your career, or whether it might be better spent writing papers (or a thesis). I’m not about to suggest that you should abandon these services (I certainly won’t be), because they can be a useful supplement to academic writing and networking.  But be realistic about how useful it really is, particularly given your career goals.

I do hope I’m wrong and that someone points out the error in my logic, though I don’t think I am. It’s a major change in direction in terms of my thinking about the web, but ultimately a successful career measured by making an impact on my discipline is more important than promoting myself on the web.

3 comments on “Publish (high quality research) or perish

  • Nice post and I see where you’re coming from.

    Quality is not easy to define: I prefer a definition that relates to real-world utility, although I don’t discount theoretical reflection as an important part of improving real-world practice. What I find extraordinary is that the medium is considered more important in judging quality than the message. For example I get more points as a historian writing a book that no-one in a developing country can afford to buy, than publishing in a journal which even poorer libraries will have access to online, and that will be read across disciplines. Some of my most influential work has been published free online as a book with a research council press, and I probably got little academic credit for it.

    One unfortunate systemic result of the situation you describe in the heritage field is that there is less interaction between academic discourse and the discourse of heritage practitioners: to get into an A-rated journal you only have to get past the hurdle of academic reviewers who spend all their time reading each other’s work and writing, not engaging with heritage practice. What you say in a journal need not actually be useful to practitioners. Although you could argue that’s good in challenging the practice of heritage management, for example, the reality is that there is less and less debate between critics and practitioners. I think in general this is bad for both sides.

  • “other factors count (such as teaching quality) but I’m yet to be convinced that such metrics have equal importance”

    Those metrics do not hold any weight when compared to A* or A level publications. I recently won a Vice Chancellor’s award for teaching, and my head of department ask me how this award contributed to an A* publication. (That the award was hand signed by the new VC didn’t matter. Did it contribute to A*? No? Bad staff member! No cookie!). Although ERA themselves repeatedly state that journals are one element in a six category framework, the university sector tends to reply “And by that you meant Publishing in A* journals, right?”. Internal metrics are all journals – you can be convicted of interesting criminal charges, or have repeated serious professional misconduct charges, and if you’ve got an A* or two, you’re bulletproof.

    Your logic isn’t flawed, and I say this as one who made their way through the game publishing as I felt, writing textbooks rather than journal articles, and ignoring the rules of the system, but I started in the late 1990s, and I’m happy to get hit with the massive and ongoing negative reinforcement about non-journal publications.

    If you want to progress in the system, you’re doing the right thing.

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