Two reviews will shape the future for early career researchers.
Chief Scientist Cathy Foley’s report on research assessment is due in August and the Sheil Review of the Australian Research Council Act recommends empowering the ARC to review research performance.
Dr Foley’s project is informed by a survey commissioned from the Australian Council of Learned Academies and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, to ascertain, in part, how “research assessment practices in universities, governments and the private sector shape research careers and how they influence researchers’ choices and priorities.”
But Margaret Sheil and colleagues came up with a conclusion that will put institutions on track to decide whose careers have legs. They call for the end of the Excellence in Research for Australia and Engagement and Impact reports, to be replaced by an ARC framework, “for regular evaluation and reporting … that allows the full impact of research funding to be assessed and the public benefit explained.”
One way or another, universities will look to ECRs to build institutional profiles – and many managements will look to individuals’ research citations to decide who to employ.
Which is a problem for many.
“A lot of how ‘success’ is defined for early and mid-career researchers is through metrics such as the number of citations and publications, impact factor, number of patents, amount and frequency of grant funding. We do hear the frustration of our community in perceiving that the value of our research and our value as researchers are being reduced to a list of bare and out-of-context numbers,” the Australian Academy of Science’s EMCR Forum acknowledges in its annual report.
Which is not great for researchers in fields that are not citation-friendly. Lucy Montgomery from Curtin U’s Open Knowledge Initiative warns citations vary by discipline, with 70 per cent of work not indexed in some humanities fields.
The Sheil review also points to the way assumptions about measurement can shape outcomes, suggesting changes at the ARC have “compounded” problematic funding prospects for early career researchers. One is increasing the emphasis on investigator record in grant assessment, which “assumes the ‘concept of merit’ is unbiased and aligned with innate ability and creativity.”
Which can leave researchers bewildered.
As the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment puts it funding agencies should be, “explicit about the criteria used in evaluating the scientific productivity of grant applicants and clearly highlight, especially for early-stage investigators, that the scientific content of a paper is much more important than publication metrics or the identity of the journal in which it was published.”
As Professor Montgomery points out, researchers need transparency of inputs and to be able to understand their own data. “Career progress should not depend on numbers,” she says.