Go back

ARC: disqualifications ‘based on issues raised by external experts’

Australian Research Council reviews preprints situation as science academy writes to education minister

The controversial disqualification of applicants to the Australian Research Council for including references to preprints followed concerns raised by outside assessors and peer reviewers, the ARC has said.

It was revealed last week that a total of 32 applications for Future Fellowships and Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, all in the physical sciences and worth a combined A$22 million, were disqualified under the controversial rule.

Answering questions from Research Professional News, an ARC statement said: “Eligibility issues may arise in a number of ways, and are considered throughout the selection process and separately from the peer review of an application. Where an issue is raised by an assessor or Selection Advisory Committee member, the ARC is obliged to consider those issues against the requirements set out in the guidelines. That is what has happened here.”

Research and science bodies including the Australian Academy of Science are continuing to seek talks with the ARC over the issue.

A statement from the ARC on 27 August said that it “acknowledges the concerns raised by the sector and is working to address them…The ARC is considering the best way to deal with preprints which is appropriate across all disciplines. The ARC is currently reviewing the requirements placed on applications and feedback from the sector on the best way to proceed to ensure fairness in the treatment of preprints.”

Letter to Tudge

A statement from the Australian Academy of Science on 27 August said that it had written to education minister Alan Tudge to express its concerns. “It could easily be argued that a researcher not referencing material found in preprints is not using the full range of contemporary knowledge in a discipline. That, in the view of the academy, would be more of an indictment than using and referencing material published as preprints,” the statement said.

“The academy indicated to minister Tudge and the ARC that it would be happy to assist the ARC review their current policy framework, as a matter of urgency, such that best practice can be achieved across disciplines and applied to all future grant rounds.”

It continued: “The academy is concerned that such a technicality should have a major impact on so much of Australia’s research potential, especially when it was applied to applications after they were deemed to meet the criteria for funding. While the academy understands that it may be difficult to reverse the decision already made, the academy has made clear that it would be appropriate to permit those affected to apply in future funding rounds—and not use another technicality (the number of times an applicant may apply) to deny these outstanding young and early career researchers an opportunity to advance their careers and bring benefits to Australia.”

Research Professional News has contacted Tudge’s office for comment.

Unclear process

The figures involved in the rejected applications were uncovered after Mehreen Faruqi, education spokesperson for the Greens, moved a Senate motion ordering Tudge to provide the information.

Faruqi has now added questions on notice, including whether all applications were tested against the rule, whether it was done through an “automated function”, who was consulted before the rule was introduced in 2020 and who has given “feedback” on how it has affected them. Answers to those questions are expected to take some weeks.

Social media commentary from leading researchers and the popular Twitter account @ARC_Tracker has questioned whether all the applications in the two rounds were assessed for including preprints, or only some. Some researchers who included links to preprints were not disqualified but were not funded because their applications did not rank highly enough. Others have noted that most of the disqualified applications referred to material held on the ArXiv server, commonly used in physics and space science.

An ARC spokesperson said: “Eligibility is considered at any time during the selection process.”

‘Unnecessary waste of effort’

The Australian Society of Plant Scientists has joined the groups calling for change, with an open letter to the ARC saying: “The preprint policy is ambiguous…The eligibility check with respect to this policy is apparently being conducted specifically for the highly ranked applications after assessments have been completed. This is an unnecessary and avoidable waste of the research community’s efforts invested in the process of assessments and rejoinders.”

Another open letter, organised by a group of independent researchers, has garnered around 700 signatures so far. The letter calls on Tudge and the ARC to change the rules, saying: “Citing preprints will improve the value that Australian taxpayers get for this significant investment. This is common practice by many national and international funding agencies already.”

The ARC has not revealed whether any researchers have formally appealed against the decisions, although one research office has confirmed to Research Professional News that an appeal is being prepared.

Asked whether the rule would affect the upcoming Discovery grants, which are currently being decided, the ARC spokesperson said: “All grant rounds which have opened since September 2020 have had this eligibility requirement.”