By Dr Jeremy Patrick, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

In the past two decades, many Australian universities have made dramatic shifts in how they recognise research. Often, these shifts are in direct response to government incentives.  There have been periods where the sheer quantity of peer-reviewed research was the goal, periods where only “Q1” publications were deemed valuable, periods where “impact and engagement” looked to be the next big thing, and more.  Most recently, the only thing that really seems to matter is research income—grants.  Any academic discipline within a university that can’t show major grant income could be punished by mediocre (or worse) ratings in ERA rankings, leading many universities to respond by explicitly building research income into the evaluation of individual academics when it comes to matters like promotion and workload allocation for research.

It may be plausible to argue that this focus on research income is warranted for the sciences.  Cutting-edge research in medicine, physics, agriculture, engineering, and related fields isn’t done well on the cheap.  In a field where a single piece of laboratory equipment could cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, every dollar that comes into a university via external research income helps build capacity for future research success.

But—at least for now—universities are more than just STEM research institutes.  The humanities have been poorly served by this new worship of grant success as the be all and end all of what makes a good researcher.  At my university, a former research director once remarked: “It’s not like anyone does research sitting in their office anymore.”  He had a science background, and I can’t comment on whether or not that’s true in STEM.  But for the humanities, I can attest that many of us do perform most of our research sitting behind a desk.  In law, the doctrinal methodology of synthesising case law and evaluating legal rules is still foremost in the discipline’s legal journals.  A literature scholar looking at portrayals of gender in the works of EM Forster or a political scientist labouring over census data to analyse voting patterns also (probably) don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant income in order to do good work and publish in the best outlets. 

The distorting effect comes when universities adopt a “one size fits all” approach and evaluate scholars in the humanities by exactly the same criteria that it evaluates scholars in the sciences.  Although grants do exist in the humanities, they do so at only fraction of the number and dollar value available for the sciences.  More so, many particular disciplines in the humanities have a very different approach to scholarship than the sciences: we don’t usually put fifteen names on a five-page article, track prestige by citation count, “partner with industry,” or join established research teams as doctoral students.  There is a fundamental difference in kind that needs to be recognised, and policies that fail to do so (for administrative simplicity or a false equality) are deeply problematic.

Grant worship has a more fundamental flaw, however.  Universities have begun to lose sight of what grants are: a means to an end.  Grants are an input, not an output.  The ability to wheedle money out of the ARC or some corporation is certainly a skill, but it’s not necessarily the same skillset of what we traditionally value in scholars—the ability to contribute to knowledge.   In the past several years, we’ve begun to value the mere obtaining of money for research far more than the actual research itself.  We’ve gotten to the point, even in the humanities, where winning a grant to write a book is celebrated (and rewarded internally) far more than the actual writing and publishing of the book.  And those scholars who publish regularly without having to resort to grant money?  They are, by (new) definition, simply not very good researchers—despite their output constituting the vast majority of total research output.  The incentive now is to apply for grants just for the sake of getting the prestige of getting the grant, regardless of whether or not the money is actually necessary or the project is one that the academic is genuinely interested in.  And, of course, for the humanities there are so few grant opportunities that all the futile time invested in making repeated applications could probably have been better spent doing actual research.

In this new world for the humanities, “publish or perish” has become “fund-raise or perish.”  Though, to be fair, “perish” probably just means being “punished” by additional teaching loads instead of research time, along with a permanent relegation to the bottom ranks of the academic ladder.  It still beats digging ditches, of course.  But universities need to have a more realistic view of what scholars in the humanities do, and how unrealistic it is to expect more than a handful of us to win significant research income.