Economists generally love the idea of incentives: little nudges to our behaviour that reward or punish us for beneficial or detrimental actions.
In academia, the incentives have generally been of the negative kind: “publish or perish”, as the saying goes.
But the Australian Research Council is currently undertaking a giant, systematic exercise in creating incentives in the higher education research system in Australia. Called the “Excellence in Research Australia” process, or simply the ERA, it is currently attempting to catalogue and rank essentially every academic journal of note. The result will be a master list of international academic journals, which will allow researchers from all fields to quantitatively judge and rank each other according to the merit of their publication record – much as the scientists already do through their various “impact factor” indices.
The outcome will be crucial to the future career prospects of academic researchers in this country, so it’s no surprise that many of us have been on tenterhooks as the ERA rankings have worked their way through the system. Nerves have not been soothed by the wild gyrations in various journal rankings: some journals have gone from the top rank (“A*”) to the bottom rank (“C”) in their passage from draft to draft.
And some journals have disappeared altogether, including one of Australia’s more noteworthy literary non-fiction journals, Meanjin. Previously ranked highly with an “A”, Meanjin has a long and noble history of publishing scholarly (though not necessarily peer-reviewed – which was probably the rub) non-fiction about Australian arts, letters and culture.
This matters for my publication record. For instance, I had two significant articles published in Meanjin last year. Both featured substantial primary research, including over 20 hours of interviews with more than 15 subjects in one article. Now, neither can be counted towards my academic publication record. Meanwhile, another journal in which I published has gone from an “A*” to a “C” ranking. At the click of a mouse, my publication record has gone from cutting-edge to mediocre.
It’s an interesting exercise in what some cultural studies academics would call “the production of research.” After all, in days gone by, most humanities scholars judged their peers on the monographs they published. But monographs have yet to even make it into the ERA process properly. I wonder how historians who have mainly published books feel at the moment? And this doesn’t even get around to the problem faced in all strongly-coded incentive systems, which is the overwhelming incentive to “bilk” or “game” the system.
Ther are certainly echoes here of the problems Louis Menand refers to in his recent book on the American universityt system – an excellent review of which you can find over at The New Republic.
As for me, I’m figuring out how I can turn those Meanjin articles into some kind of peer-reviewed “research”.