‘Heartbreak’ as research careers ruined by Australian rule tweak

ARC says it communicated rule change clearly, but applicants say it forces them to plagiarise to qualify for funding

八月 19, 2021
rejected denied invalid ruled out
Source: istock

Dozens of early and mid-career researchers in Australia have had potentially career-saving grants stolen away from them because of an obscure rule that bans references to preprints in funding applications.

Under a little-noticed change to the instructions for Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, preprint publications cannot be cited anywhere in application forms. Previously, academics were barred only from listing preprints in the curriculum vitae section of applications – something well understood in university research offices that scour grant forms for errors.

The new rule, introduced this year, appears to have caught them unawares. Consequently, many applications for Future Fellowship and Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) grants have been spiked – a development described by one Twitter user as “simultaneously heartbreaking, perverse and Kafkaesque”.

“We all work so hard on these applications,” another tweeted. “For such a trivial technicality to cause the applications to be ineligible is outrageous. And why this rule exists anyway is baffling.”

DECRA, designed for “promising early career researchers”, typically provides funding in excess of A$400,000 (£210,000) over three years. Future Fellowships, which are supposed to encourage excellent mid-career researchers to stay in Australia, are worth about A$1 million over four years.

Times Higher Education understands that only highly ranked proposals – those that are set to be recommended for funding, after being appraised by peer reviewers – were checked for compliance with the new preprint rule.

DECRA and Future Fellowships have success rates of 20 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. The figures exclude applications ruled out over technical breaches such as references to preprints.

An astronomer who asked not to be named learned several weeks ago that her Future Fellowship application had been ruled invalid because it cited preprints. She said the fellowship had been her last chance at continuing her research career, with her current contract ending in months.

She said the treatment by the ARC was the latest blow to researchers reeling from job cuts caused by the Covid pandemic and the Jobs-ready Graduates reforms, which reduced the revenue universities earn from science students. “Thousands of academics have left. The field is bleeding.”

The astronomer said she had been “treated like someone who cheated” for citing unpublished papers, which was standard practice in astronomy. The papers were awaiting peer review after being uploaded to the arXiv database – a popular repository for physics research – barely a month before the application deadline.

“If I had not cited these preprints, I would have been committing plagiarism,” she said. “How can you reference all relevant literature but not preprints? Basically, if you have a great idea, and it’s new and exciting, you can’t apply for ARC funding. It’s forcing incremental research – slow-moving research.”

THE understands that at least five applicants are appealing the ARC’s ruling. But if the appeals are successful, it is unclear whether the council has funds to honour the quashed grants. It is also unclear whether the new rule will be applied to the Discovery Projects scheme, which typically attracts about 3,000 applications and is currently being assessed.

THE put both questions to the ARC, which did not answer them. But it said eligibility criteria had been spelled out in application forms and instructions to applicants. “This requirement was also communicated to research offices through webinars at the time of the opening of the grant rounds,” a spokesperson said.

“The inclusion of a preprint in an application results in the application being ineligible. This provides fairness to all researchers who act in accordance with the eligibility criteria and the rules applying to the scheme. It ensures that all applications are treated the same.”

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, a former academic, asked the ARC’s CEO Sue Thomas to reconsider. “Researchers put hundreds of hours into these extensive applications,” Dr Faruqi wrote.

“The trajectories of entire careers are often based on the success or failure of grant acceptance. ARC should be facilitating fair, transparent and comprehensible processes.”




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