In May 2015, Flinders University — where we were all working as academics in the archaeology department — was planning to set minimum thresholds for staff, in terms of papers published and grant income generated. These plans were published by our academic union and covered in the local press.
At the time, senior management at the university, based in Adelaide, was increasingly paying attention to a federal government programme named Excellence in Research Australia (ERA). This scheme, established in 2010, was undertaking evaluations that aimed to increase the quality of research nationally. The first full round of evaluations occurred in 2010, and subsequent rounds followed in 2012, 2015 and 2018.
The ERA is modelled on similar assessment exercises internationally, such as the Research Excellence Framework in the United Kingdom. It assesses each discipline at a university according to its research outputs, which are measured in terms of the quality of publications, the amount and type of research income and various gauges of scholarly esteem.
In practice, this means an increasing reliance on quantitative measures for assessing research performance.
Flinders’ proposed research expectations varied according to academics’ seniority and discipline. Minimum thresholds for publication and research income were based on the average number of publications per staff member and the average amount of funding that had been received nationally by each discipline according to the data collected in the two previous ERA rounds in 2010 and 2012. For archaeology, this meant that, each year, a professor (at ‘Level E’, the highest classification level) would have been expected to produce a minimum of three publications and to generate at least Aus$40,000 in research income (equivalent in 2015 to roughly US$32,000). For a ‘Level B’ lecturer, however, it would have been enough to produce one publication a year and to raise just $5,000.
It seemed increasingly likely to us that public funding for universities would be tied to these ERA outcomes, although this has not happened yet. To survive, all Australian universities were developing expectations such as these as part of their strategies to increase research quality.
A changing academic world
The initial reactions of our department to the research expectations were fear, anger, resistance and confusion. These feelings manifested initially in informal discussions in the hallway or over coffee, and quickly dominated our departmental meetings.
We were concerned that the very existence of the proposal signalled a shift to holding individual academics accountable for their performance in ways that had not been considered previously. We worried about the assessment process and obsessed over various scenarios and the effects they’d have. For example, how would single-authored versus multi-authored publications and grant proposals count towards an individual’s research performance, and what of journal quality and citation rates?
We found ourselves asking what would happen to individuals who did not meet the research-performance expectations. Many staff across the university felt that these proposed changes would penalize staff whose research activities had suffered because of their teaching responsibilities.
In our own field of archaeology, we had already for several years been discussing our department’s weaknesses in terms of the ERA framework. Our university’s previous ERA ranking in the discipline had been a sobering 2 (out of 5), classed as ‘below world standard’. As a department, we had published too many lower-level papers of variable quality (including ‘vanity press’ articles, whose publication costs are paid by the author), and our research income was insufficient and inconsistent.
Although we were on the path to overcoming some of these issues, we had not yet formulated a strategic plan to address them as a department for the next ERA round.
Ultimately, the proposed research expectations were not adopted by the university (which decided on different measures after consultations with staff), but they spurred us to action. Drawing on the proposed measures, we decided to benchmark ourselves as individual researchers, focusing on our performance over the previous five years. The results were dismaying. Although some staff members had previously held grants from our premier national funding body, the Australian Research Council (ARC), none was a grant holder at the time of benchmarking.
Most of us were above the set targets for the number of PhD students supervised, but the majority were below targets for publications. According to both the ERA rankings and the proposed research-performance metrics that the university had discussed, we were not excellent — in fact, we were far from it.
We decided to face this problem head-on as a group. Our first meeting was brutal, honest, collaborative and transparent. We recognized that although people might be able to deceive management or hide behind the creative use of numbers in a document, they can’t deceive colleagues who are sitting across a table in front of them.
Fortunately, in response to previous ERA rounds, we had been reducing our teaching loads and developing our own workload equalization formula to ensure that all staff had an equal opportunity to do research.
In a series of strategy meetings, we discussed two crucial things: how to improve our future ERA ranking as a collective, and how to improve each individual staff member’s personal performance in line with the university’s probable internal targets. Our response had three strands.
First, we formed research teams and held a series of workshops to define research themes that encompassed the existing work of our department, as well as future research projects that we wanted to do. These themes included topics such as the archaeology of frontier conflict and colonialism in the nineteenth century; ‘green fields’ archaeology, which aims to find sites in previously unstudied areas; and the development of new conceptual frameworks and methods to redress unrecognized disjunctions between Indigenous world views and archaeological theory and practice.
Second, most academic staff members agreed to meet the minimum publication metrics for their level, as per the proposed research expectations, and to aim for the highest-ranking journals in their subdisciplinary areas. This meant that we would explicitly seek to publish in outlets that ‘counted’ higher in the ERA. In practice, this meant targeting journals with high citations and reach — ones with a Scimago Journal Rank indicator in the top quartile. This approach directed us away from most edited books and book chapters, as well as from community and local publication outlets, and discouraged the use of vanity publishers.
Third — and perhaps most importantly — we each agreed to submit one competitive national grant application per year, either individually or as part of a research team, for the following three years. We increased our chances of success by developing these applications together, and by workshopping each other’s applications to improve the quality of every submission.
One of the markers of esteem that counts favourably in the ERA framework is a nationally competitive research fellowship. So we also set about actively luring scholars to join us whom we considered potentially good candidates for an ARC-funded fellowship, or who had just been awarded one.
As a cohesive, supportive and collaborative team, we deliberately targeted people we felt would be good colleagues — those who would contribute to the cooperative environment and increase the success of the team, rather than just their own individual metrics. These scholars were attracted by the idea of working in a collaborative, high-achieving research environment. Three new research fellows joined us — one each year in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Later, each was awarded tenure.
This became our five-year research strategy from 2015 to 2020. A new deputy vice-chancellor for research joined the university in mid-2015 and we obtained his support for our vision. At the end of each year, we met as a group to frankly assess our progress and brainstorm new ideas. Annual reports were circulated to our deans and the deputy vice-chancellor for research.
At the same time, our university was consolidating its own strategy. A new vice-chancellor and a new set of goals meant that, in 2018, our university went through a major restructuring, involving voluntary and involuntary redundancies and a reorganization of academic and administrative units. This prompted uncertainty and fears of job losses — and although it resulted in a slightly greater number of academic positions overall, it changed the balance between teaching-and-research, research-only and teaching-specialist roles.
What was the impact?
By doing what seemed blindingly obvious to us, we had recreated all the classic elements of a productive research environment: we’d deliberately maximized the time available to do research; we’d used that time to focus on a common purpose; and we’d created a collective environment that was cooperatively managed and collaboratively led.
The result is that we are now seen by the university’s senior management — and by ourselves — as a success story. By creating our own research metrics and benchmarks as a team, we insulated ourselves from a restructuring of academic staff and increased our output as a group. At the beginning of 2022, every one of us held one or more ARC grants. Over the past five years, we have raised $12,838,662 in ARC funding. Co-publishing from team projects has meant that each person’s output has increased and the number of articles we have produced has tripled since 2015. The quality of our publications has also increased: in 2015, only 16% of the journals we published in made the top 10% of titles listed in the academic database Scopus; today, that figure is 44%. Today, we don’t need a strategy. We just need to maintain our existing research culture.
Somewhere along the line, our disciplinary efforts morphed into a genuine collaboration with our college and university. In the past few years, we have received continued support through the refurbishment of facilities; the purchase of a new aluminium boat for the maritime archaeologists, and of a new four-wheel-drive vehicle; and the provision of three-and-a-half new positions, two of which were for research fellows who’d been newly funded by the ARC. University support has been crucial to our ongoing success.
Overall, the metrics show that we are playing the funding game better than we were. We apply for more, and we succeed more often. This trajectory has created a major shift in our confidence. We went from (secretly) thinking that we couldn’t write a fundable ARC grant application to understanding that we could write great ones, and we applied these skills to each other’s applications as well as our own. Although we all work under much greater pressure as a result, being more productive and collaborative is our survival strategy. To allow us the time to carry out large research projects, we apply for teaching relief in our grant applications. Our research environment (as assessed by funding or publications) is more robust and includes significant financial support from our university.
Our message is simple: by working as a team (and anticipating likely challenges), you can thrive even in the unstable academic environments that exist today. The tertiary-education environment in Australia is still fragile and uncertain, but our advice to others is to face the problem frankly and together. Continued and constructive collaboration is more valuable than ever in these precarious times, so don’t do it alone — find people who will help you, and whom you can help, and then work together on a joint solution.