Make no mistake, many scientists think that public scrutiny of research performance relative to global standards is a good thing. To my mind it is quite remarkable that there is a measure of agreement among academic economists about the framework of these global standards. There are top general journals, top field journals, quality journals, good journals, and journals that are downright indecent. In economics the ERA rankings of journals were very generous to most journals but were not entirely unreasonable.
I am partial to the idea of improving the upcoming ERA 2012. There indeed is a need to iron out various problems. I am also not surprised that the ARC is looking to make significant improvements. However, I am concerned that the Ministerial Statement appears to politicise the international benchmarks used to assess research performance. The journal rankings that were dropped are described in the 30th of May Statement as inherited from the previous government. I read this as injecting political rationalisation for changing the way the ARC measures research performance.
When I give career advise to a junior colleague I feel obligated to communicate my understanding of the profession’s standards and my mentoring aims to help maximise the colleague’s global standing as a scientist. For this my advice typically is try and publish in the best outlet for your work. Should I now condition my advice to junior colleagues? Try and publish in the `American Economic Review’ if party X is in power; open your mind to various indecencies and what-nots if Y are in power. No. Of course not. The global standards in my field of research will not be affected by the instruments used by the ERA.
I am certain that the ARC does not want to politicise the ERA process. It is very unfortunate that a measure of politicisation appears to have made its way into the Ministerial Statement. My advice to both the Minister and to the ARC is keep squaring the circle out of politics. One simply cannot square the circle. Each field has global benchmarks for ranking contemporaneous research performance and the ERA should reflect these.
The remaining task for the ARC is determining the fields of research that are assessed. And the rule of thumb should be, if an area of research has distinct global benchmarks for research performance, then it is a field of research that should be assessed separately. Areas of research with simply local benchmarks are typically too narrow for the ERA to take seriously.