A new review announced yesterday by the Minister for Tertiary Education Craig Emerson will examine the regulation of Australian universities.
It comes at an important time. Just recently a report commissioned by Universities Australia found that the average Australian university is spending nearly A$1 million every year meeting just part of one department’s reporting requirements.
As universities are forced to tighten their budgets, the review will be a vital step. But at the moment, it’s concentrating on just one kind of regulatory pressure – namely that from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – without considering all the other groups that ask universities for information.
But there is one idea that would not only help save universities from their large reporting burden, but also increase the public’s access to research.
Doing things thrice
At the moment Australian universities report their research in three different ways. All Australian universities, the CSIRO and many others have free digital repositories to make their staff’s research publications accessible to the public.
Universities also have a different database to report publications data and make publications available for the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessments conducted by the Australian Research Council (ARC). All universities are also required to report their publications separately each year for the Australian government’s higher education research data collection.
This multiple reporting is expensive and unnecessary. All these databases report research publications, and yet they are all managed and treated separately.
So instead of three “research banks” per university, what if there was just one?
Three birds, one stone
Of course, things would need to change to create a single source of a university’s publications data. For example, at the moment, these digital repositories include some data on each publication’s author, title, key words, publication venue and date, and other meta data to support search engines. This meta data would just need to be expanded to include all the data needed by government bodies.
There would also need to be a consideration of what research is made available to who and when. In most cases, articles that are accepted for publication are made accessible to the public between six and 24 months after publication. But of course, government and research bodies would need this information more quickly.
Institutions would need to lodge a research publication by the deadline most convenient for the harvesting bodies, but in any case no later than 12 months after publication. But this material would be held under embargo until it can be made publicly available. This would mean a date of restricted access, available to ERA, ARC and NHMRC administrators, assessors and referees through passwords. And a date upon which it is accessible to the public.
The Department’s, ERA’s and research granting bodies’ administrative staff, assessors and research grant referees would harvest data and publications from institutions’ repositories as they required. This would provide one common source of data on each institution’s research publications for the multiple purposes of the Australian government and research grant bodies.
This one “research bank” would save institutions considerable effort in meeting their different reporting requirements and deadlines. It would also, importantly, make accurate data as well as the text of a piece of research available to the public within a reasonable time and at no cost to the reader.
Making publications accessible to the public without charge is part of the [open scholarship movementwhich also includes making research data accessible to the public. Making knowledge more available is a noble venture, but the movement has had its difficulties, including technical issues, problems with copyright, researchers’ capacity, and valuing the effort and skill of generating and curating data.
Open scholarship raises cross currents if not contradictions in public policy between open government and the restrictions of copyright, privacy, resourcing archives and digitisation, and saving web pages from turning to digital dust. It also intensifies competing demands on scholars’ time between doing research and disseminating, discussing and debating it in traditional scholarly communities and more broadly.
But scholars are responding because, as Courtney Enzor observes, in today’s digital age “publish or perish” is becoming “get visible or vanish”.
If then, this change towards single research repositories can make collecting publications data more efficient, lessening the reporting costs to universities, all the while making research knowledge available to the public, it’s hard to see why they shouldn’t be adopted.