By Professor Ross Woodrow
The DDCA roundtable in Melbourne (30 Oct 2019) demonstrated that the supposed divergent voices, across the various fields of creative writing, music, visual art, design, film and interactive media speak as one on the important issues facing the sector in teaching and research.
In relation to creative arts research, the sector is unanimous in heralding the hugely positive implementation of the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) in lifting the profile of the creative fields in academe. There is also agreement on an emerging range of odd, even perverse, attitudes towards the treatment of Non-traditional research outputs (NTROs) and how they are measured and assessed for quality within different universities.
The sinuous operational structure of the ARC, with arteries connecting to all university disciplines via its executive directors and labyrinthine capillary connections to countless sub-disciplines and specialisations via peer-reviewers helps remove disciplinary bias in policy making. Even so this does not necessarily remove bias toward or against research modes or publication forms that cross several different disciplines. In 2010, the ARC demonstrated it could be responsive to the changing research publication forms using new technology by removing the moribund, yet time-honoured, ranked-journal listing as a quality measure.
No doubt this was in preparation for expanding the ERA scheme that was required to cope with a range of quality citation and bibliometric measures, along with offering its own peer-review system for NTROs.
Comparisons of the data from the ERA 2010 and ERA 2012 made it abundantly clear that a system adapted to measure quality at the discipline-specific level, without a one-size-fits-all approach, is a system that can be manipulated or gamed, usually to the benefit of dominant disciplines. For example, while a research dean at one university might be delighted at seeing a “4” rank in religious studies, a dean at another university might see an opportunity to transfer some publications to gain a “5” in historical studies.
Since those early days, the ARC has mostly been attentive to such bad behaviour and legislates the monitoring of this and other perverse behavioural consequences of the discipline specific indicators of research quality – such as citation analysis, ERA peer-review and Category One grant income.
In the ERA 2018 this was written into the guidelines:
‘“Behavioural impact—indicators should drive responses in a desirable direction and not result in perverse unintended consequences. They should also limit the scope for special interest groups or individuals to manipulate the system to their advantage.”
Most discipline leaders at the DDCA roundtable come from backgrounds in creative practice, the fields dominated by NTROs. As a result, when they get together, nobody avoids discussing the elephant in the room, conspicuously lacking any resplendent grant-funded regalia; for the biggest and most pressing issue is lack of research funding support and ARC grant income. After almost a decade of eligibility for ARC grants and ERA measurement and assessment of creative outputs under the NTRO category, no real progress has been made in achieving ARC grants for researchers producing creative outputs.
In fact, looking at the ERA data and statistics for ARC grants awarded, it could be argued that the sector has gone backwards in relation to other disciplines. For example, over the past decade about 80% of ARC grants awarded for projects that have an exhibition or non-traditional research outcomes have been given to researchers in fields other than the creative arts. Is this what the ARC intended in legitimising the NTRO category for the creative arts?
It is not possible to build a sustainable research culture in academe, comparable to other HASS disciplines, let alone the sciences, when, for example, the primary creative field of Fine Arts received only two of the 1474 Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRAs), or 0.1% of the half-a-billion dollars awarded, for the period 2012–2018. The fact that only 16 applications were submitted nationally by one of the largest disciplines in the creative fields also suggests the problem lies with the gatekeepers at the level of individual universities.
The ARC has no policy bias against the creative fields but clearly the legacy of the long-term categorical exclusion of the creative arts has left a collective or cultural bias embedded in the system. Examples abound of the perverse, illogical privileging of discursive means over non-discursive outputs that make up the majority of NTROs. Some institutions are employing professional writers (not proof editors) to create convincing ERA research statements for NTROs with the hope they will rate highly. The public exhibition or presentation of a creative work is its publication. This bizarre strategy of privileging post-publication writing contradicts the fundamental purpose of using non-discursive publication forms to capture what cannot be presented in verbal or written modes. It would never be assumed that expertise in the language and research methods of the humanities and social science, which are mostly dependent on research starting points in questions or propositions, transfers to judging non-discursive research outputs in quantum physics, or computer coding for example, yet it is illogically taken as a given that such expertise is an automatic qualification to judge the value or quality of creative arts NTROs.
The obsession with converting art, music and film made to transcend the inherent limits of discursive argument, into a well-argued piece of writing is becoming pervasive. As one disturbing manifestation of this, the proposition that creative arts research outputs could be good research, but poor art, has gained some purchase in several universities. This will warm the heart of conservative critics and commentators in confirming that university art schools are producing garbage art; as it would distinguish the field within the academy as the only domain where the description of the method matters, for measuring quality, but not the outcome.
The ARC has demonstrated it can act decisively when strategic intervention is required, the almost overnight removal of the HERDC system being a case in point. No such radical surgery is needed for the creative sector but some direct, affirmative action by the ARC is the only way to change the destructive behavioural changes being caused by this slow colonisation of creative arts research disciplines by the traditional and discursive fields.
Since creative arts researchers make up more than 3% of the national cohort it would not be unfair or unreasonable if for just two DECRA rounds beginning from next year the ARC earmarked 2% of available funds specifically for projects conducted in the creative arts fields by researchers who work principally in non-traditional research modes. This affirmative action would be transformative, as research leaders in the university sector would be compelled to take the NTRO seriously and the flurry of activity that would follow such a corrective intervention, along with the evidence of the dozen or so DECRA projects created, would recalibrate thinking about research in Australian universities to be more inclusive in operation and expansive in vision.