More ERA thoughts

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.

One thought on “More ERA thoughts”

  1. Some more thoughts to add to Joshua’s:
    It takes a lot of effort to do good research and even more to get the top researchers in your field to be sufficiently impressed by your work that they recommend it’s publication in a leading international journal. For scientific research, these leading journals include ‘Nature’ and ‘Science’. In statistics they include the Annals of Statistics, JASA and a few others. Physics, in addition to Nature and Science, has Physical Review. In the area of economics there is international consensus on which journals are ranked in the top five, and which belong in the top thirty.

    Australia is academically a very small country. What that means is that the research activities of Australian-based academics have no perceptible effects on the regard that the international academic community has for the various publication outlets. In that sense,
    we are price takers.

    When an Australian academic manages to publish in a top journal, the signal is clear: The work has been deemed by leading members of the profession to be excellent and as good if not better than their own. Such publications provide the academic with significant
    international exposure and scholarly rewards.

    For decades Australia’s academic community has been operating in essentially a protected industry not accountable to international norms and not accountable to the relative values that the international profession places on scholarly achievements. In
    the area of economics, research performance in many wealthy departments has been well under par by international standards. The protection afforded by lack of accountability meant that individual professors in some departments formulated ad hoc incentives that were at odds with international standards. There were exceptions. From time to time we saw the emergence of excellent departments such as Melbourne, UNSW and the ANU where top researchers got together and set up incentive structures in line with international standards.

    ERA in its first round adopted journal rankings in economics that are more or less is in line with international standards. In doing so it brought to bear values that much of the Australian academe had ignored. It opened up the university sector to international competition and made universities accountable to the values in international market for ideas. As with the removal of other forms of protection, this change has brought a barrage of complaints. This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of the ERA that warrant complaint. However, it is consistent with the notion that some of the rents from a comfortable life and a lack of scrutiny were being threatened.


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