My post on the ERA has been cleaned up and published on The Conversation. One of the main comments people have had is that it is critical and doesn’t present an alternative. That is true. My main point is that, under conditions that were perfectly forecastable, a new system was implemented at large cost, people responded to incentives and moved pretty quickly to a new equilibrium of allocation (i.e., academics to universities) and incentives (i.e., where to publish). And then because that happened, the system was ditched leaving everyone with the cost as well as a vacuum in terms of measures. Put simply, that run around is managerial incompetence of the highest order.
So let’s move on a little but first recognise a few things. First, if you are going to measure performance some people are going to be happy about it and some people not. Second, there is a difference between measuring performance and rewarding performance. That is, in theory at least, you can measure performance but not necessarily provide a reward for it. In practice, it is hard to disentangle those things in competitive environments. Third, academics are going to need measures of performance for their own purposes independent of what any Government decides to do.
What could the Government have done? There are actually ways of reducing gaming without plain giving up. One problem was that universities were poaching academics based on their ERA-induced publication list. This happened because (a) the ERA exercise was intermittent rather than continual. It can be continual if we just invested in a small amount of information technology so that we removed the deadlines. (b) given the deadlines, the ERA reward system made it optimal to poach academics. So here is a solution, don’t count poached academics until some minimum period of time has passed. Yes, that will mean the universities have to wait to get their reward but that small friction may stop a lot of activity.
Another problem was that academics changed their publication habits. Now it is hard to tell if that is a good or a bad thing. But there is a sense in which the Government shouldn’t care. Is the research being published and made available? That is the only relevant question. Now what might be a concern is if the ERA rated publications were more likely to be proprietary than less ranked ones. In that case, access would be an issue. But the Government could use that to foster change and open science. There is no reason why access can’t actually be a criteria to be more highly ranked on the ERA.
Anyhow, for those in economics and management (my fields), we can mitigate the whole waste of time thing by keeping the ERA rankings. Yes, they are not perfect. Yes, some are disaffected by them. But at least they are something. Don’t we owe it to our students at least to provide some form of objective, research rankings that weren’t developed by some media outlet? Because the alternative to the ERA is something someone trying to sell newspapers comes up with.