Counting your eggs after the chickens become nuggets

Last night I helped my husband document his ERA submission. He’s in a creative arts discipline, and for the first time in 2012 the ERA will now count ‘non-traditional outputs’ as valid research outputs – in this case, concerts/performances, CDs, compositions and the like. It’s fabulous that non-traditional research work is finally seen as valid – although, in true government style, they have now demanded 5 years (2005-2010) of outputs be documented ASAP. Fun. Steve had over 20 outputs for those years.

The exercise, though, has me thinking. In real terms, 20+ outputs in 5 years is well above that of many academics, but until the ERA made their decision this year, as far as quantifiable research has been concerned Steve’s sat on his hands doing absolutely nothing because he’s never published a paper. And in an industry that focuses on being ‘research active’, that’s an issue. It might not have come to anything here, but if he worked at USyd, things might have been very different.

This is the problem with bringing new rules in retrospectively. USyd (details here if you haven’t come across the story) and other institutions are making decisions that directly impact on staff employment, based on arbitrary quantitative definitions of what ‘research active’ is. ERA widening their criteria for accepted publications is meaningless to the person who lost their job several years earlier based on old criteria, no matter how retrospectively ERA’s new decision extends. Suddenly deciding to accept something you’ve previously ignored is useful for the future, but universities are making employment decisions based on the past. I’d hazard a guess that at least some of those 100 axed from USyd were research active, just not in a form recognised by either ERA or their institution, and if ERA decides in 5 years’ time to accept what they’ve done as valid output, no retrospective application of this is going to reinstate their employment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not aiming to excuse those who are on academic positions but just don’t do research. What I am concerned about is those of us who engage in non-traditional communication of our research – a retrospective decision might not be enough to save us if the horse has already bolted.

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