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Top-cited academics honoured (but where’s the humanity?)

Twelve academics today received awards as the most prolific and most-cited researchers in fields deemed to be strong areas…

Nobel laureate and astronomer Brian Schmidt speaking after the announcement of the Thomson Reuters awards. AAP/Alan Porritt

Twelve academics today received awards as the most prolific and most-cited researchers in fields deemed to be strong areas for Australian research, at a ceremony in Canberra.

However, the prestigious Thomson Reuters Australia Citation and Innovation Awards has raised the eyebrows of education and humanities academics who argue that the system used to calculate those fields and their best and brightest scholars is - like the Federal Government’s National Research Priorities - skewed to the sciences.

Thomson Reuter’s Senior Director for IP and Science in Australia and New Zealand, Jeroen Prinsen, said that while the awards were intended to be be cross-disciplinary, the claims of a methodological bias against the humanities were correct.

“It is a challenge. The humanities does have a different citation patterns, so using one methodology to apply equally across the board wouldn’t give you appropriate results. That is a correct ascertation of it,” Mr Prinsen said.

The citation section of the Thomson Reuters Australia Citation and Innovation Awards, which had no good news for fields including the arts and education, went to the following scholars:

• Professor Karl Glazebrook (Astronomy & Astrophysics) - Swinburne University of Technology

• Professor Terry Speed (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology) - Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI)

• Dr Jane Elith (Biodiversity Conservation) - University of Melbourne

• Professor Ove Hoegh-Guildberg (Ecology) - University of Queensland

• Dr Thomas Wiedmann (Economics) – CSIRO

• Dr Shaobin Wang (Environmental Studies) - Curtin University of Technology

• Professor Kurt Lambeck (Geosciences) - Australian National University

• Professor Fabienne Mackay (Immunology) - Monash University

• Professor Greg Stuart (Neurosciences) - Australian National University

• Professor Rana Munns (Plant Sciences) – CSIRO

• Professor Colin MacLeod (Psychology) - University of Western Australia

• Dr Evie Leslie (Public, Environmental & Occupational Health) - Flinders University

Thomson Reuters' online account of the methodology it uses states:

This exploration of Australian research began with an identification of fields which were strengths for the country, by a combination of three criteria: first, how many papers Australian researchers published; second, how great a proportion of the field globally Australian research represented; and third, the level of impact, measured in citations, relative to global performance in the field.

After the fields of apparent strength were identified, Thomson Reuters then identified scholars who shone in those disciplines, again via output and citation metrics:

All Australian-affiliated authors from papers published between 2002 and October 2011, in journals indexed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, were reviewed. A shortlist of researchers in each field was established by finding those authors who had published a given number of papers, each of which had been cited that given number of times – a metric called the h-index. This meant that only researchers who had made a strong contribution in terms of both quality and quantity were considered.

Such methods are blind to the way humanities works and will necessarily push its disciplines down the list of fields of strength, said the executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Christina Parolin.

“What’s reflected most in these awards is that they’re based on a particular form of publishing practice that just doesn’t really exist in the humanities,” Dr Parolin said.

“Journal articles aren’t seen as the main form of publishing output for the humanities; it’s still the book, the monograph, that is the principal output. No citation indices can capture that form of publishing. Yes, humanities academics publish in journals, but the principal output remains the scholarly monograph,” she said.

Furthermore, the teamwork common to the sciences puts researchers names into play much more often than does the more isolate nature of humanities research and writing, Dr Parolin said.

“In the sciences, you’ll get a research team or a lab and everybody’s name will get on the article, from the PhD students through to the head of the research team. So in the sciences you get people who can claim - not illegitimately - 15 journal articles a year. That practice just doesn’t exist in the humanities, where even though there are collaborations you very rarely see a team of 10 authors for an article. There are very marked differences in publishing practices,” she said.

This was why the Australian Research Council does not rely on methods such as Thomson Reuters uses when assessing the quality of research, Dr Parolin said. “Citations doesn’t come into play in the humanities,” she said.

Expert Commentator for the Australian Council for Educational Leaders David Zyngier said that education was of fundamental importance but it too was excluded by a focus on citations.

“Most of our work is done in the public sphere: the best work is done through The Conversation, where we have enormous reach to the general public. In my field, if I have five or 10 citations over five years I’m doing really, really well. But I might have 15,000 readers at The Conversation and I know I’m having huge impact,” Dr Zyngier said.

Dr Zyngier cited his most recent article at The Conversation, saying that in less than 24 hours since publishing it had drawn several hundred readers and had prompted emails from schools around Australia giving feedback.

“That kind of impact is never in any of the metrics. Citation indices are all skewed towards the sciences,” Dr Zyngier said.

Both Dr Parolin and Dr Zyngier questioned the
makeup of the Commonwealth’s National Research Priorities, from which the humanities and education are largely excluded.

Dr Zyngier said that this marginalisation had unfortunate consequences. “It comes out in the Australian Research Council grants - education gets very few. As an early career researcher, which I am, only three Discovery early career research grants were awarded in education in the first round.”

“Without education what we’d have is a dumb society. You don’t get scientific research, you don’t get breakthroughs in medicine, you don’t get new architecture and new engineering, if children aren’t able to understand what they need to know early on in public schools,” Dr Zyngier said. “Education is spoken about as a priority by our politians, but that’s not reflected in grants for research.”

Thomson Reuters would be happy to work with the humanities sector to try and develop a better method of identifying highly esteemed research in their disciplines, Mr Prinsen said.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth has started a process to “refresh” the National Research Priorities, and Dr Parolin said she hoped the refreshment would deliver a solid place in them to the humanities.

Comments welcome below.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Veronica Sheen

    Research Associate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

    I worked in social policy and research for many years mainly focused on influencing government policy and public opinion - using sound research and evidence to back up proposals. I have had a lot of difficulty in the academic sector understanding how many of the academic journals influence anything. I was shocked to learn at a seminar last year of the low average number of reads for an article in an academic journal (3). There are so many journals and I have wondered who reads them apart from other…

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  2. Grendelus Malleolus

    Senior Nerd

    "Yes, humanities academics publish in journals, but the principal poutput remains the scholarly monograph,” she said."

    I had to laugh hard at the word "poutput" given the context of the quote. I'm not sure it is a problem with the awards - if the criteria is publication in journals, then that seems fairly straightforward. My approach would be to seek the creation of an award that fits the humanities better, rather than try and change one that does not. If the humanities were successful in changing the criteria the sciences would then have an equally valid claim that they were disadvantaged.

    1. Matthew Thompson

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Grendelus Malleolus

      Thank you for spotting the typographical error. The "p" is now gone.

      As noted in the story, Thomson Reuters is open to finding more universal methods of calculation in order to make the awards more representative of the finest in all disciplines.

  3. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    I have read the humanities is in the doldrums and has been for quite a while. Central to that is students are discouraged to express their own ideas but get better results by expressing the lecturers ideas for him/her.

    In other words, write something agreeable and not something original.

    I presume graduates under that system are now professionally writing. Is it possible there is now a structural deficiency within the humanities in such a way that the output is not up to it?

    1. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      IIt is hardly fair to limit that criticism to the Humanities.

      Academics in general, in their role as lecturers, like to be agreed with. Scientists and technologists, just as much as economists, historians or literature critics.

    2. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to John Harland

      That may be true but the information I have read was about the humanities.

      Humanities is less concrete and more disputable and more opinionated. From that, and getting back to my information, it was said there is generally an excepted train of thought and the easiest and safest road is to follow the train.

      Hence my comment of ‘write something agreeable and not something original.’

      Also, I suppose science and technology is not really based on opinion but fact as we understand it to be. From that I am not sure if its right to lump historians, economists, and literature critics in with scientists and technologists in this instance.

  4. Christopher Lamb

    Humanitarian Adviser at University of Melbourne

    How interesting, and interesting too to see the divide between "humanity" in the title and "humanities" in the substance. It reminds me of Henry Dunant, who shared the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901 for his work which founded what is now the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. At his death in Appenzell in Switzerland in 1910 he asked "Where has humanity gone?".

    Where indeed.

  5. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    It is only a matter of degree.

    There is plenty of scope for opinion and prejudice in science and technology and there is clearly a need to substantiate what you write about in the humanities.

  6. Anne Price

    Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University

    I am really glad to see you raise this issue. I work in the field of Education and while I publish in journals some of my most important work, I think, is for the profession in terms of such things as reports on the extent of 'Teaching out of Field' in schools and the impact of ultra fast track 'Teach for All' programs. While this work is really important it is often not recognised by the scholarly community or ranked as highly as some other types of academic work.

  7. David Elson

    logged in via Facebook

    Surely the hard sciences are far more robust and scientific than the work performed under the banner of "humanities".

    It shouldn't be surprising then that these fields should in turn be more richly awarded with awards...

  8. Michael James

    Research scientist

    Regrettable to say so but Australia is unhealthily obsessed with awards. Something to do with being a small pond and perhaps grants and academic promotion etc being dependent on this kind of recognition. Sure it happens everywhere but is taken more seriously here. And in grant assessments one certainly gets the impression that many more things rate more highly in whether one is successful or not, than the one thing that should dominate: the science, its originality and likelihood to take the field…

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    1. Michael James

      Research scientist

      In reply to Michael James

      It is confirmation bias but the h-index also encourages good publishing habits. Contrary to what too many of my Australian (and some anywhere but it is a real Australian disease largely created by the granting bodies over the decades) it quickly became obvious to me that it is better to wait until one has a substantial or more complete story to publish it. Equally obviously it will be more likely to get into a better journal which will also correlate with the citations it will pick up.

      The nice…

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  9. John Harrison

    Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

    Delighted to see a bunch of top people rewarded for their contributions - which are outstanding, authentic and genuine. But how would an undergraduate student in a research methods course in any discipline fare if they presented a methodolgy as obviously flawed as this?