Book publishing sidelined in the game of university measurement and rankings


Agata Mrva-Montoya, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, University of Sydney

Academic book publishing is under threat. Global university rankings and competition for funding and international student enrolments are reshaping the research landscape. Academics are under more pressure to win grant funding and publish journal articles, rather than books, and be more strategic in their publishing.

With universities losing billions in revenue due to the impacts of COVID-19, these pressures are only going to increase.

Traditionally, a monograph published with a prestigious publisher has been a key medium to create and disseminate research in the humanities and social sciences. It has also been important for building scholarly careers and reputations. However, our research shows publishing pressures, incentives and rewards are changing.

A shift from quantity to quality

The Australian government’s approach to funding research has had a strong impact on what types of publications have been encouraged.

Australian universities first began reporting details of academics’ research outputs to the government in the 1990s as part of the formula for distributing research funding. The funds allocated for publication were significant. By 2001, a peer-reviewed journal article was “worth” more than A$3,000 to the university. A book was “worth” $15,000.

These rewards applied regardless of where the research was published. “Publish or perish” had well and truly taken over. Without appropriate measures to account for quality and impact, the system had the unintended consequence of encouraging academics to publish low-quality research with low-quality journals and publishers just to meet performance targets. The use of quantitative measures alone also increases the possibility for gaming and manipulation.

Read more:
Publish or perish culture encourages scientists to cut corners

Publication data were eventually removed from the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications in 2016. Since then, no government funding based on quantity (or quality) of research outputs has been distributed.

Australia’s current national research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), began in 2010. The ERA system is designed to identify and improve quality of research through international benchmarking.

As a result, all universities expect “quality” publications from their staff. This is invariably understood as publishing with international and prestigious publishers and in high-ranking journals.

As universities compete against each other, they have a strong incentive to lift their research profile and to design internal reward schemes based on how ERA defines quality.

Academics are now fundraisers

Our research project looked at the publishing strategies and behaviours of academics in the humanities and social sciences. We found the pressures for quantity appear to have subsided (for some at least). However, there is now a greater push for quality, competitive grant funding and real-world impact.

While universities are still interested in quality publications, the changing funding rules mean universities that receive competitive funding get additional research funds through HERDC. This translates to greater pressure on academics to apply for and secure funding. Academic production appears to have shifted from publication as an outcome in itself to funding as the main measure of performance.

women weighs up books in one hand against piggybank in the other
Academics must now weigh up the expectation that they attract funding against other performance criteria.

Funding bodies, in turn, are increasingly looking to researchers to show their research has quantifiable, real-world impacts. And ideally they should publish in open access publications.

Read more:
2020 locked in shift to open access publishing, but Australia is lagging

Juggling publication quality and research impact

Academics are caught in the middle between the pressure to publish in quality outlets versus the need to demonstrate impact in the broader society. This creates a conundrum for academics in the humanities and social sciences in particular.

A number of participants in our research described the ways in which their university’s performance evaluations are aligned to publishing practices in science, technology and medicine. Citation metrics are commonly used as a proxy for quality in these fields. Books are generally not available or poorly represented in citation databases.

Many respondents felt their institutions devalued book publishing in favour of journal articles and collaborative authorship.

The emphasis on international publication means some subject areas are rated higher than others. For example, academics in Australian studies told us they felt their institutions undervalued their work.

We also observed an increase in the number of journal ranking lists or recommended publisher lists, created internally by universities. These are intended to make “quality” explicit by identifying where academics are advised to publish.

However, these lists discourage academics from publishing with local, niche, emerging or open-access book publishers and journals. These outlets might actually be a better fit for their target audiences and so lead to greater impact.

Read more:
Who cares about university research? The answer depends on its impacts

Distorting the value of academic inquiry

The different expectations of various stakeholders mean academics receive conflicting advice about publishing strategically. Academics are encouraged to engage with the Australian context and communities. At the same time, they are told to produce research that prestigious international journals and publishers will accept.

These pressures lead researchers to publish in ways that reflect how they are being measured. This appears, in turn, to influence their research agendas. The current research landscape seems to be more a reflection of what is being measured, rather than what is needed by society or would advance knowledge.

Academics, especially early career researchers, have no choice but to remain open to changing priorities, be they institutional or governmental. They must balance the contradictions and tensions in academia. In spite of the rhetoric of academic freedom, university performance expectations mean academics are increasingly required to construct their research agendas and publishing strategies to be attractive to grant funders and international publishers.

Apart from affecting individual academics’ careers, these practices have broad social and intellectual costs. For the humanities and social sciences, in particular, these trends could affect the future and relevance of these disciplines in Australia.The Conversation

Agata Mrva-Montoya, Honorary Associate, Department of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, Manager, Academic Services, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading the landscape: university publishing houses and the national creative estate

File 20180917 177935 18ukvug.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Alexis Wright, pictured here in 2007 after winning the Miles Franklin award for her book Carpentaria, is one of many writers first published by University of Queensland Press.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, University of Western Australia

Review: Reading the Landscape, a Celebration of Australian Writing (UQP).

It is actually quite difficult to imagine what Australian literature would look like without the University of Queensland Press (UQP). Since it was established in 1948, it has done as much as any Australian publisher to shape Australian creative writing. The title of this excellent anthology Reading the Landscape refers to this literary landscape rather than any thematic interest in Australia’s land.

Peter Carey.
Heike Steinweg

Whether writers like David Malouf, Rodney Hall, Peter Carey, Doris Pilkington-Garimara and Alexis Wright would have become the writers they became without UQP is a moot point. One assumes, with the benefit of hindsight and the stratosphere they now inhabit, that they certainly would have. How could we not have Oscar and Lucinda, Remembering Babylon, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and Carpentaria? How could they not exist? But the fact is that each of these writers, and dozens of others, were first published by UQP.

Against considerable economic pressures, UQP is one of a handful of Australian university presses that continue to produce quality scholarly publications for academic and general markets. While academic scholarship is considered the natural province of a university press, UQP is distinctive in having developed significant fiction and poetry lists from the late 1960s.

Recently, the University of Western Australia’s UWAP has followed UQP in developing fiction (and creative nonfiction) and poetry lists, and last year UWAP author Josephine Wilson won the Miles Franklin for her novel Extinctions. But UQP’s record of discovering, nurturing and supporting Australian writers, is really without peer in the other Australian university presses, and unique in world terms.

Reading the Landscape is a cross-section of living writers who currently publish with UQP or have in the past. At least three generations feature — those who debuted in the 1970s and 80s, those who appeared for the first time in the 90s and 2000s, and the current range of new writers.

Read more:
Grief, loss, and a glimmer of hope: Josephine Wilson wins the 2017 Miles Franklin prize for Extinctions

Julie Koh.
Hugh Stewart

In the first generation, we see not only Malouf, Carey and Hall, but important writers like Nicholas Jose, Peter Skrzynecki and Gabrielle Carey. In the next generation, there are writers like Lily Brett, Melissa Lucashenko, Larissa Behrendt, David Brooks, Venero Armanno and Samuel Wagan Watson. And finally, we have writers only recently to emerge such as Jaya Savige, Julie Koh and Ellen van Neerven.

Those familiar with some of those writers will be reminded, in this anthology, of just why they have been celebrated. Rodney Hall’s Glimpses of Lost Europe, for instance, is a charming reminder of his effortless brilliance. It begins in 1954 like this:

Dr Bródy – philosopher, philologist and metaphysician ­– was grateful to find work in Brisbane as an umbrella salesman.

And spins outwards from there. Various trends and movements suggest themselves from these contributions. One is the turn towards factual stories in the genre now known as creative non-fiction. Another is the rise of the young-adult genre as a powerful and lucrative publishing phenomenon.

One of the creative non-fiction highlights of this anthology is Patti Miller’s riveting account of her uncle’s hang-gliding accident. Icarus is the spellbinding story of a quiet and meticulous man who becomes, in his 60s, a devoted hang-gliding enthusiast, only to have his spine shattered by an accident while landing.

Spiky and lyrical, smouldering and rueful

I was also taken by the quality of the poetry by younger writers like Savige, van Neerven and Ali Alizadeh. Their respective poems were by turns spiky and lyrical, smouldering and rueful. The way that they mix politics and memory, urgency and metaphysics, affirms the continuing possibilities of poetic expression in what often seems like an increasingly prosaic age.

Perhaps most significant, though, is the rise of Indigenous writing visible in the contributions from acclaimed authors like Lucashenko, Behrendt, Wagan Watson and van Neerven (the last three each won the David Unaipon award).

Ellen van Neerven.
Bridget Wood

The appearance of modern Indigenous writing is often dated to the publication by Jacaranda Press, another largely independent Brisbane press, of Kath Walker’s (Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s) We are Going in 1965. UQP published Kevin Gilbert’s People are Legends: Aboriginal Poems in 1978, and as Bernadette Brennan reminds us in her fine introduction to Reading the Landscape, the press contributed very significantly to the emerging study of Indigenous writing with seminal monographs on the subject by J.J. Healy and Adam Shoemaker.

Many of the key Indigenous writers to follow in the wake of Oodgeroo, Kevin Gilbert, and Jack Davis have come through UQP, although the WA presses Fremantle Press and Magabala Books have also been crucial. In van Neerven, in particular, one sees a worthy successor to Oodgeroo, as invidious as that comparison might seem. Oodgeroo’s trademark mixture of acerbic humour and gut-punching honesty shines through van Neerven’s verse, and her poem 18C is a fitting conclusion to the anthology.

Written in answer to the recent controversies that have surrounded the anti-vilification provision of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, the poem’s 18 stanzas thread in and out of the complexities of black life. The final stanza, and the book’s last words are these:

Courage is telling them what you think of that play, that script they try and write us in will no longer contain us, bring me a new coat of oppression, this one’s wearing thin.The Conversation

Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, Associate Professor, English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.