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NERA: the Nonsense of Excellence in Research for Australia

By Gavin Mooney - posted Thursday, 31 March 2011

I have very recently facilitated an Aboriginal community jury looking at the sorts of values and principles that Aboriginal people want to underpin research that is conducted on the health services they receive. Fascinating! There were a really good debate and answers about these issues.

First however they had to think through what they meant by research. A number of excellent ideas emerged but these were dominated by the thoughts of one of the elders who suggested that research was about 'learning by observation'. Sounds good to me … ah, the wisdom of the elders.

The Aboriginal health research that might emerge in the wake of the deliberations by these Aboriginal people, if it follows the values and principles that they feel should be the basis of 'learning by observation', would, by them, likely be defined as 'excellent'.


We did not discuss ERA – Excellence in Research for Australia, this current attempt on the part of the government to quantify excellence in our universities' research. This involves in part ranking publications by the perceived quality of the journal (from A* to C or unranked) in which they are published. The perception of quality is that of the researchers in the field.

How many of the papers from the research being considered by the Aboriginal community jury will make it to A* journal I do not know but it might not be too many. But I'd bet there will be more of this research that is A* in their terms than what gets to A*journals. Whose perception should count?

This whole NERA process is reaching a crescendo so that in the last couple of weeks, I (and I am sure many others) have received requests from various individual journals to take part in an exercise which by implication seeks to persuade the NERA makers that this or that journal is not say a lowly C but merits a higher ranking. Researchers all round the country and in some instances round the globe are being asked to take part in this perceived- quality-raising exercise. Presumably those who believe in this whole NERA process do so. Perhaps in their suggestions - they are human after all and their careers are partly dependent on this – they might just be influenced in setting rankings by where they themselves usually publish. None of the journals I publish in could possibly be ranked a C!

Then I got a request from 'the other side', in essence from the ERA makers asking me to indicate for a range of named journals if I agreed with the current rankings or if I would want them moved up or down. Three things here: these are mainly English language journals (in my field none of those listed was Australian!); there was scope to add only one when I would have wanted to add several; and one (to me) significant journal was missing (and it may just have been chance that it is politically on the left). But then maybe I think it is significant because I am on the editorial board or because I have published in it or because it is more in tune with my political values or some combination of all these factors which of course would never ever bias my thinking or my perception of its ranking.

I have published in many journals in my career. I have even published in foreign language journals which are not named in the 20,713 listed in the ERA exercise. Rather silly of me I suppose. I got a request the other day to consider writing for a Nigerian journal which is not ERA listed. Why on earth would I do that when I can aim at an ERA ranked journal?

I mentor young academics in writing and publishing both in Australia and in Africa. Certainly for the former, so often they are urged (not by me!) to aim from the word go for high ERA ranking journals where the chances of being rejected are high. It is tough being rejected any time but it is especially tough early on in one's career. Early on there is an argument I believe for publishing wherever and avoiding confidence sapping rejections from high ERA ranking journals.


My young African colleagues? Do they follow this ranking nonsense and only go for ranked, primarily non-African, journals? Do they ignore their home grown journals?

The imperative to quantify everything that moves or 'performance' as it is often called seems to be a 21st century disease. It is an infectious disease. It started in the market place and in business with performance indicators and has seeped into so many walks of life – our hospitals, our justice system, now our universities.

Facebook measures 'success' by the number of friends we have. Daft but then getting these emails from journals, by implication pleading with me to say how this or that journal is a B or an A or even an A*… Is this not the editors trying to establish how many friends their journal has?

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About the Author

Gavin Mooney is a health economist and Honorary Professor at the Universities of Sydney and Cape Town. He is also the Co-convenor of the WA Social Justice Network . See

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