Australian Research Council abandons preprints ban

But thousands of Australian researchers remain in limbo, with reviled rule still in force for grants under consideration

September 14, 2021
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Australia’s main research funding agency has backflipped on a rule that bans mentions of preprints in grant applications, saying that the veto will not apply to future funding rounds.

But the change of heart will not help 32 physicists who have already had their funding hopes dashed, with the Australian Research Council (ARC) insisting that its rules cannot be modified retrospectively.

And it leaves thousands more researchers in limbo, with references to preprints still likely to nullify applications to current rounds of Discovery Projects – the council’s biggest single scheme, in terms of grants awarded – and Linkage Projects, which supports collaborations between public research institutes and industry.

In a statement, the council said that mentions of preprints would no longer be an eligibility issue, with disciplinary experts left to judge the suitability of “citations and research outputs” referred to in grant applications.

“This adjustment to ARC’s policy position reflects contemporary trends and the emerging significance of preprint acceptance and use across multiple research disciplines as a mechanism to expedite research and facilitate open research,” the council said.

The decision follows a storm of protest from academics who said that the ban, which took universities largely by surprise, was out of step with current practice and contrary to principles of open science, ethical attribution and rapid dissemination of findings.

The outrage increased after it was revealed that all applicants who had so far fallen foul of the rule came from the same broad field – physics – and some appeared to have been denied funding for simply referring to a popular preprint repository.

The council said that “feedback” from the sector had “assisted the ARC to ensure that the broadest range of disciplinary perspectives could be incorporated into this policy decision”.

But it said that it could not change eligibility rules for funding rounds that had already closed. “We must allow our standard application and appeals processes to be completed for these cases,” its statement said. “The appeals process is overseen by a group of experienced and respected individuals independent of the ARC and will be progressed as a matter of priority.”

So far, the ban is known to have invalidated 32 applications to the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award and Future Fellowships schemes. It is thought that some and possibly most of these applications would otherwise have been successful, collectively attracting grants of up to A$22 million (£12 million).

With announcements of Discovery and Linkage Projects funding expected in November, hundreds more otherwise successful applicants could share their fate. Researchers tweeted that if that transpired, their appeals should automatically be upheld.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said that the ARC should reconsider its stance. “It’s devastating that the rule will continue to apply for rounds already closed. More researchers will unnecessarily face heartbreak, with the physical sciences disproportionately impacted,” she said.

A research transparency activist who communicates under the pseudonym “ARC Tracker” said that the agency should “provide some justice” to the 32 researchers already affected and disregard the rule in funding rounds still under consideration.

“It’s had such a devastating effect already, and it so clearly has been applied unfairly to a single discipline. It’s beyond ridiculous for the ARC to hold the line that it’s going to follow the rules, when it hasn’t even followed its own rules.”

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