Do you publish in books and journals that you think are best for your work?
While this may come across as a dense question, it’s a live and thorny issue for many scholars who are caught in national ‘research quality’ metrics that rank publications, particularly journals.
@thesiswhisperer commented recently that “[c]lassifying my publications by FOR code makes me look like a person who can’t make up their mind what they want to do”.
The title for this post paraphrases @jod999, who responded wisely with: “Your success says a lot more than your #FoR codes. Just keep doing what you do.”
If you haven’t yet encountered a national research quality exercise, I have two things to say to you:
- Congratulations – you still walk in the light; and
- If you’re hoping to hang in academia for a bit, read on to work out how you might negotiate these research quality systems when they cross your radar.
Research quality exercises are created as standardised, supposedly objective modes of measuring the quality of research being produced by research organisations (and, down the ladder, by individual researchers).
The systems are also constantly embroiled in passionate debate about their viability, accuracy, and scope. Is research output the best way to measure research quality? Dare we talk about research impact? What do citations really measure about a piece of work? How much ‘gaming’ of the system, for its own sake, takes place?
In the current climate of Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), academics need to allocate Field of Research (FoR) codes when registering their publications (and projects) in an institution’s research database.
The ERA exercise – through a complex formula that includes assessments of publications quality, competitive grant income, prestige elements, etc – ranks universities and disciplines according to these FoR Codes.
While there are currently no direct fiscal consequences attached to these rankings, there are many, MANY indirect ones.
For example, if your university was ranked 5 (well above world standing) in a certain FoR code, typical flow-on effects could include:
- research in this FoR code becoming a university priority (if it wasn’t already), which can often mean more material resources and infrastructure,
- encouragement to publish in a particular set of codes to allow the university to build more quality output for the next ERA assessment submission,
- extra funding for personnel to keep this FoR code sailing well (often appearing as commitments to designated new academic positions, scholarships, or research fellowships), and
- researchers who are working well in that FoR code gaining more profile within the university (as scholars to especially support).
In a sector where many already feel disenfranchised and overlooked, many researchers can feel that ERA priorities eclipse their own areas and devalue their work in other fields (that may not have ranked as highly). This is particularly the case if there are edicts to publish only in specific FoR codes and even journals. The issue of curtailing academic freedom has been raised repeatedly in these situations.
For some, the priorities will work very well for where they’re already heading. Others feel that they have to swap area (or disciplinary) horses mid-stream, which can put a significant productivity hole in their track-record.
Into this fraught mix, I wanted to add one more key thing to consider. Something that may run counter to what your department or faculty might be telling you. This is in ‘what do you want to do with your life?’ kind of territory.
For early career researchers in particular, research trajectories and concentrations post-PhD may still be gathering momentum and gaining depth. Collaborations are maturing. If you’re suddenly finding yourself meeting organisational priorities much more than building your expertise the way you’d like to, it’s good to take a step back and think a few things through.
- Are those journals that you’re feeling pressured to publish in really where your work needs to be to build your profile? Top journals are sometimes the most conservative, and their publication timelines can be shocking (and not much good for early career researchers trying to get runs on the board for a CV). Across a few years, do three well-received and cited publications in good-but-not-top journals trump one in a top journal? I certainly don’t advocate publishing for the sake of it, but a strong publication track-record doesn’t have to mean only top journal publications.
- Where do you see yourself making your mark? If it’s not in the areas that you’re being shepherded to publish, try a bit of push-back. If you’re researching and writing well in an emerging area, you may well be the next big hope for a university, so don’t mess with your momentum for a system that, quite honestly, may not stick around.
- Further to the previous point: You’re not going to be at your current institution for the rest of your research life…are you? If you feel like you’re compromising your research self because of the priorities of your current institution, think of where an alternative space might be. Cultivate a track-record that serves you well for where you want to go – skewing your work for another discipline or because of colleagues’ exhortations can work well at times, but it can also take you in directions where the work becomes more of an obligation than a passion. And that’s not good.
You may still end up ‘publishing to appease’ every so often, but don’t let it be your life. Indeed, as @warrenstaples commented, many applied disciplines (such as his: Management) offer research that appears across a broad range of FoR codes, and that is the way it should be, but it’s not a neat package for slicing into FoR categories.
The best way to ‘game’ a system is to learn the rules, and find ways to make what you already do matter.
If you want to know a bit more about the Australian research quality game, ERA, and FoR Codes, RW has previously addressed these topics: