Dr John Lamp (@JohnWLamp) has been navigating the seas of academia for twenty years.
An apparently aimless meandering actually camouflaged a core interest in information, how it is perceived and categorised, and the dynamics of categorisation.
In 2012, his PhD thesis “Information Categorisation: An Emergent Approach” was awarded the medal of the Australian Council of Professors and Heads of Information Systems. He can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and lists to do with open access and research impact. His ORCID is 0000-0003-1891-0400.
There are some fundamental problems with the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification Field of Research (ANZFoR) codes. So fundamental, that we really need to stop and go back to first principles.
Categorisation is one of the most basic things that we all do. Some of you have now categorised that statement under “things I agree with,” others as “things I don’t agree with,” and possibly many other categories.
For those of you who are thinking that you don’t categorise things: I’m sorry, but even that is putting things into a category. A very big and possibly useless category, but a category nonetheless. I often say that there are two sorts of people: those who categorise.
Categories are useful things. It’s much easier to say “I like movies in which Colin Firth acts” than to say “I like <insert a list of all the films in which Colin Firth acts>!”. They are convenient short-hand descriptions.
They also convey an additional layer of information. Reciting a list of all the films in which Colin Firth acts requires the listener to decode the common feature of all those films. The use of a category, as well as defining something, highlights the particular attribute that the speaker is addressing. In the absence of that information, the listener may inaccurately group by director, country of origin, or another attribute. Also, the list will soon date as Colin Firth acts in new films, but the category description may not have that problem.
There are some real problems with categorisation, though. Some of them relate to simple mis-categorisation (how on earth did “health informatics” end up as a sub-category of “librarianship” in the ANZFoRs?), but the real bugbears are structure and perspectives.
With most people, there is almost an automatic assumption that every categorisation should be in a hierarchy with major categories, minor categories, and sub-categories.
That can work well for classifications, where an item can only belong to one category. But there are others, such as fields of research, where this is not necessarily helpful.
One interesting alternative is a sort of radial categorisation. Take a kitchen chair, for example. Let’s use that as a central prototype. If we knock the back off the kitchen chair, we have a stool. Add arms to the chair and upholster them and we have a lounge chair. Add upholstery to the stool, and we have something between that and the lounge chair. Extend the lounge chair and we have a sofa. None of these are sub-categories, none of them fit a hierarchy – the connections are more like a mind map, but with some structure.
Research is more like that mind map arrangement. You start from one point, different researchers address it from different perspectives, with different tools, and yet others develop models to accommodate and develop a synthesis of the different approaches. Now, another group likes the approach and applies it to a completely different field, which has similar issues. Both the domain in which the research is being undertaken and the methodology differ, and come together in different ways.
What goes into a particular category and how those categories are arranged is necessarily determined by the perspectives held by those determining the categories and their arrangement.
So, let’s examine the ANZFoR codes and the stated reasons for their determination and arrangement.
The ANZFoR codes are organised into a hierarchical categorisation scheme … of sorts! While the two digit, four digit and six digit structure seems straightforward, it is couched around additional rules and exceptions. Every area seems to have these exceptions.
One exception for Information Systems (0806) is “Organisation and retrieval of information is included in Group 0807 Library and Information Studies.” This will come as a surprise to most information systems people, to whom organisation and retrieval of information is fundamental for their activities and research. This is especially true of Database Management (080604) and Information Systems Organisation (080610) researchers. On the other hand, Library and Information Studies researchers definitely work in that space, too. Even the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) exercise allowed the selection of three codes to describe a research output. Why then have a hierarchical system when it really doesn’t reflect the relationships between categories?
There are several answers to the question of “how did this apparent mis-classification come about?”
First, there is the perspective of the people defining the classifications. The drafters valued consistency with existing coding schemes, specifically mentioning the OECD’s Fields of Science 2007 classification. They also viewed the research methodology as of paramount importance by basing their categories “according to the methodology used.” The amount of mixed methodology research must have made that interesting. This approach is confirmed in the section under principles “the field in which research is undertaken and based on the processes and techniques used.” They also deleted categories “that reported very little funding in the past three ABS R&D surveys.” The final intriguing principle is to separately deal with “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Maori Studies, Pacific Peoples Studies” by dispersing them as subcategories of multiple groups.
The preoccupation with consistency is easy to understand – these are statisticians, who prioritise consistency and stability above all. (That’s my perspective on them, anyhow!)
But the trouble is that research is a developing activity, almost by definition. There was supposed to be a minor review in 2013, but when I asked about this, I was told that “ABS and Statistics NZ have agreed that a minor review will not be undertaken in 2013.” Nothing will be done until 2018.
We have a scheme mandated in 2008, in lock step with a scheme mandated in 2007, and presumably developed before then. I wonder if the OECD have their scheme based on yet an earlier scheme? [It was a revised version of the OECD Fields of Science 2002 – Ed.] How much latitude will there be, in the 2018 review, for a major redevelopment of the ANZFoR codes with this perspective dominating?
The use of research methodology as a basis for categorisation seems problematic to me. It is a perspective that does not stand up to scrutiny. I can’t see that you could argue for a consistent research methodology at the two or four digit level, and certainly not at the six digit level. In my area – information systems – research methodology seems to have a large geographic component. North American studies have a strong leaning towards quantitative research, Europe towards qualitative research, and Australia is a more even mix of both. If you quibble that these are methods and not methodologies and raise this to an ontological or epistemic level of analysis, then the mis-match is greatly increased.
The treatment of Indigenous people by having their own six digit fields scattered throughout the categorisation scheme is also intriguing. It could be argued that this diffuses and segregates such research on an artificial basis. This segregation is done from the premise “to aid the understanding of research from different cultural perspectives which are unique to Australia and New Zealand.” How, then, do you categorise research which is holistically investigating those cultural perspectives across ANZFoR classifications?
It is incontestable that each tertiary institution is structured differently, even at the highest level, let alone at the department or school level. It is also incontestable that research areas defy formal structuring. It follows from this that, while various researchers may well be able to define their own fields of research, more than one approach to grouping those fields is necessary. This is not really possible with the hierarchical approach.
The hierarchical structure is adding nothing but confusion. The ANZFoR scheme is well overdue for a total reworking from first principles.