Indigenous research ‘catching up’ in Australia and New Zealand

Number crunching based on new research classifications helps pinpoint strengths and failings

September 29, 2020
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Australia and New Zealand devote a disproportionately small share of their research to their indigenous peoples, a new report suggests, while indigenous-focused research attracts disproportionately few citations.

A new analysis has found that indigenous research remains a small part of the two countries’ research efforts despite gaining ground. Some 8,400 publications over the past decade – a little over 1 per cent of output – were of direct relevance to indigenous people.

By comparison, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute around 3 per cent of the Australian population and some 17 per cent of New Zealanders are Māori.

The report, by analytics company Clarivate, re-evaluated the two countries’ research output against new benchmarks adopted this year. Some 320 fields of research have been added to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification system to boost recognition of indigenous research.

The analysis found that indigenous research was accelerating, with almost twice as many publications in 2019 than 2010. Indigenous research outpaced average publication growth by 37 per cent in Australia and 89 per cent in New Zealand.

But it performed poorly on citation measures, with few papers ranked in the top 10 per cent of their subjects and far fewer in the top 1 per cent.

Alex Brown, an Aboriginal clinician-researcher at the University of Adelaide, said the report understated the “true volume” of indigenous research. He said time would be needed to “work through” how the new classification codes were applied and measured.

“A lot of research in the indigenous health and broader categories won’t get picked up under these rubrics,” Professor Brown said. “A large chunk of the important research in this space may not be published in standard form. It may be work that goes directly to inform policy and practice on the ground.”

The report identifies Professor Brown as the most prolific researcher on indigenous issues in Australia or New Zealand, with 84 publications and more than 1,000 citations to his credit. But he said that his consultancies and non-journal reports, which were also important contributions, “aren’t making it into these sorts of lists”.

The Clarivate analysis found that health was the dominant subject matter of indigenous-focused research, trumping areas such as history, archaeology, anthropology and linguistics. Medical journals published considerably more indigenous research than specialist titles such as The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education and AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples.

Sydney, James Cook and Charles Darwin universities are the mainstays of the “indigenous research ecosystem” in Australia, the report found. The universities of Auckland, Waikato and Otago play a similar role in New Zealand.

Professor Brown said that he was encouraged by some of the citation figures in the report. “Given how small the field is, I think there were some standouts,” he said.

“If you’re working on genomics and you write a paper about a condition such as diabetes, there is a global community of researchers who can cite your work. [We’re] dealing with a small area of research with a very small critical mass.”

He said that indigenous researchers struggled with meagre resources and obligations to consult communities extensively before publication. “It’s hard to get our work published in high-tier journals because they view indigenous health in particular as niche – small population, under-representative, don’t care. The top-tier journals struggle to find the relevance of indigenous issues for their readership.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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