Book publishing sidelined from the game of measurement and university rankings

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Academic publishing is under threat. Global university rankings and competition for international student funding and enrollment are reshaping the research landscape. Academics are under more pressure to obtain grants and publish journal articles, rather than books, and to be more strategic in their publication.

With universities losing billions in revenue due to the impacts of COVID-19, these pressures will only increase.

Traditionally, a monograph published by a prestigious publisher has been a key medium for creating and disseminating research in the humanities and social sciences. It has also played an important role in building academic careers and reputations. However, our research shows that publishing pressures, incentives, and rewards change.

Moving from quantity to quality

The Australian government’s approach to research funding has had a significant impact on the types of publications encouraged.

Australian universities began reporting details of academic research results to the government in the 1990s as part of the Research Funding Allocation Formula. The funds allocated to the publication were significant. In 2001, a peer-reviewed journal article was “worth” over AU$3,000 for the university. A book was “worth” $15,000.

These rewards apply regardless of where the research was published. “Publish or perish” had indeed taken over. Without proper measures to report on quality and impact, the system has had the unintended consequence of encouraging academics to publish low-quality research with low-quality journals and publishers just to meet performance targets. . The use of quantitative measures alone also increases the possibility of games and manipulations.



Read more: Publish or perish culture encourages scientists to take shortcuts


Publication data was eventually removed from the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications in 2016. Since then, no government funding based on the quantity (or quality) of research output has has been distributed.

Australia’s current national research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), began in 2010. The ERA system is designed to identify and improve the quality of research through international benchmarking.

Therefore, all universities expect “quality” publications from their staff. This is invariably understood as publishing with international and prestigious publishers and in top journals.

As universities compete with each other, there are strong incentives to raise their research profile and design internal reward systems based on how ERA defines quality.

Academics are now fundraisers

Our research project focused on the publication strategies and behaviors of academics in the humanities and social sciences. We found that the pressures for quantity seem to have eased (for some at least). However, there is now greater pressure for competitive, quality grant funding and real-world impact.

While universities are always interested in quality publications, changing funding rules mean that universities that receive competitive funding obtain additional research funds through HERDC. This translates into greater pressure on academics to apply for and obtain funding. Academic output seems to have shifted from publishing as an outcome in itself to funding as the main measure of performance.

Academics must now weigh their hopes of attracting funding against other performance criteria.
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Funding agencies, in turn, are increasingly looking to researchers to show that their research has quantifiable impacts in the real world. And ideally, they should publish in open access publications.



Read more: 2020 locked in shift to open access publishing, but Australia lags behind


Juggling between the quality of publications and the impact of research

Academics are caught between the pressure to publish in quality media and the need to demonstrate their impact on society at large. This creates a conundrum for scholars in the humanities and social sciences in particular.

A number of participants in our research described how their university’s performance reviews are aligned with publishing practices in science, technology and medicine. Citation metrics are commonly used as a quality indicator in these fields. Books are generally unavailable or misrepresented in citation databases.

Many respondents felt that their institutions devalued book publishing in favor of journal articles and collaborative authors.

The emphasis on international publication means that some areas are rated higher than others. For example, Australian Studies scholars told us that they felt their institutions undervalued their work.

We have also observed an increase in the number of journal ranking lists or recommended publisher lists created internally by universities. These aim to make ‘quality’ explicit by identifying where scholars are invited to publish.

However, these lists discourage scholars from publishing with local, niche, emerging, or open access book publishers and journals. These outlets could actually be better suited to their target audiences and thus have a greater impact.



Read more: Who cares about university research? The answer depends on its impacts


Distorting the value of academic research

Differing expectations from various stakeholders mean that academics receive conflicting advice on strategic publishing. Scholars are encouraged to engage with the Australian context and communities. At the same time, they are told to produce research that prestigious international journals and publishers will accept.

These pressures cause researchers to publish in a way that reflects how they are measured. This, in turn, seems to influence their research agendas. The current research landscape seems to reflect more what is measured rather than what society needs or would advance knowledge.

Academics, especially early career researchers, have no choice but to remain open to changing priorities, whether institutional or governmental. They must balance the contradictions and tensions in academia. Despite the rhetoric of academic freedom, university performance expectations mean that scholars are increasingly required to build their research programs and publication strategies to attract international funders and publishers.

In addition to affecting academic careers, these practices have significant social and intellectual costs. For the humanities and social sciences in particular, these trends could affect the future and relevance of these disciplines in Australia.

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