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ARC announces a Tier Review Process

Roger Atkinson

To begin with, I have to acknowledge that much of what is happening in educational technology per se is not especially interesting. Sometimes, for me at least, there is too much hype about topics like Gen Y, digital natives, killer applications, iThis and eThat, and so on. What is often more interesting is how various people react to, accommodate, adopt or employ educational technologies (or fail to properly ..., as the case may be). A quite intriguing case in this genre developed recently. It began with two recent, seemingly disparate events. Firstly, the UK's Association for Learning Technology (ALT) published a Request for Proposals:

... inviting corporate organisations and/or teams of individuals to make proposals to ALT for the production, publishing and distribution of ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology (to be renamed from January 2011, Research in Learning Technology, the journal of the Association for Learning Technology) [1, 2]
Secondly, the Australian Research Council (ARC) published a terse statement on about 1 November 2010, announcing a Tier Review Process:
In preparation for the ERA 2012 round, the ARC will revise the ERA 2010 ranked journal and conference lists. This process will involve a public consultation period, followed by a review and finalisation phase supported by peak bodies and other academic groups... The ARC will release the journal and conference lists for public consultation in early 2011. [3]
Now, how are these two announcements connected to one another and to the technologies? I invite you to read on! ALT-J and its publishing arrangement by itself will not receive a lot of attention, as it is only one of some 20712 journals in the ERA 2010 ranked journal list [4, 5]. However, a brief analysis of the ALT-J case [6] has helped me to develop some forecasts about the storm likely to gather around the ARC's Tier Review Process.

To begin with, ALT's RFP concerning ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology is quite intriguing, for several reasons. Firstly, the RFP [2] publishes data that is normally not available for public viewing: numbers of "regular" subscribers, numbers of "bundled deals" subscribers, numbers of ALT member subscribers, print run numbers, etc. Real "due diligence" data, to borrow a phrase from the corporate world. Not surprisingly, the numbers of regular subscribers is small (56), evenly divided between "print + online" and "online only" and including a negligible number of personal subscribers (2). The large numbers are in ALT members (900) and the relatively new and recently developed category of "bundled deals". This category reflects recent strategies by the major multinational publishers, to move away from being very dependent upon the sale of conventional subscriptions, towards repositioning themselves as providers of "online library seats" or a "virtual library", that is selling online only subscriptions to a large aggregation or "bundle" of journals, with various additional services such as hypertext links from an article to other articles that cite it, and search facilities encompassing the whole "bundle".

Secondly, ALT did not give an explicit indication of its intentions in the business model spectrum, although it may be inclined towards an increased degree of open access. The options include an ascilite/AJET model [7] (expenses $0, income $0; full open access), or some other model, such as the HERDSA's [8] and ODLAA's [9] journal model (expenses $0, or $X as apportioned to the editorial workers; net income $Y, as negotiated with the publisher - Taylor & Francis [10] in these cases). Put in another way, is there scope for ALT to obtain increased funding from T&F (or perhaps Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier, Sage, etc [11]), whilst also being "nearly" open access with ALT-J? There is a good number of multinational publishers seeking to sign up academic and professional society journals [11], but society executives are (or should be) very aware that the "fund raising from our journal" niche in the journal ecosystem is fully occupied, or even quite over-populated.

Thirdly, ALT's RFP advanced a well-designed set of "Headline requirements", which constitutes a very good action list or check list for an editorial and publishing team, although it does not explore the full range of options. For example, the RFP [2] is ambiguous about the continuation of print, which is strange because everyone connected with scholarly journal publishing knows that printing and postage costs are budget killer items, and therefore substantial expansion of the numbers of issues per year is impossible if a printed version is continued. As the number of 'full fee' subscribers for ALT-J is relatively small (56) compared with the number of 'big discount' subscribers (the 900 ALT members), it may not be feasible to sustain a cross-subsidisation. Another option that is not explored is the use of third party services for "10. Provide a well-implemented online submission system...". Software and services are available from open source (e.g. Open Journal Systems) and commercial providers (e.g. Aries) [12]. The RFP does not canvass ideas about authors being given an option to purchase open access (see [13] for illustrative examples), or charging authors or their institutions (e.g. require at least one year's membership of ALT for the contact author or the authors' institution). Given the high rates charged by commercial publishers [13], there is an opportunity to undercut the market.

Most of the ALT RFP's "Headline requirements" [2] will require coordinated action by both the journal editorial team and the publisher, for example:

  1. Maintain the high quality of the journal, and serve to increase the esteem in which the journal is held, the influence that it has, and its impact, including, potentially, by increasing from the current three issues per year to four;
  2. Improve the overall visibility of the journal through relevant abstracting services, ISI listings, and on Google Scholar; [2]
RFP Items 2. and 7. may require resolution of a very difficult question. To what extent does ALT-J's association with a major international publisher, Taylor & Francis, help to sustain "the esteem in which the journal is held"? That question is of some interest to AJET, because it may relate to the demotion of AJET from Tier A to Tier B in 2010, whilst ALT-J retained its Tier A status [14]. Did the name Taylor & Francis tip the unknown rater's assessment towards ALT-J instead of AJET? The same question may be pertinent for HERDSA [8], ODLAA [9] and many other societies as they consider how to best advance or maintain their own journal's ranking during the ARC's forthcoming Tier Review Process.

The crux of the matter is that the ARC has tied itself into an incredibly normative ranking exercise, namely 5% Tier A*, 15% Tier A, 30% Tier B, and you can forget the rest [15]. Therefore, to advance the ranking for one's own journal, it will be necessary that someone else's journal in the same ANZSRC 'Field of Research' [16] be demoted. That can impose a 'divide and conquer' regime, as societies and other interested parties may seek to both promote 'their' journal, and belittle some of the higher ranked journals that 'their' journal could displace. There may be several hundred or more societies and editors exploring their own case studies, not unlike the AJET and ALT-J case.

My own example of 'promote' (with a restrained amount of 'belittling') appears in a recent AJET Editorial [17], which illustrates one response that may be quite common, namely comparing ERA journal rankings with other rankings such as the Thomson Reuters Impact Factor. Naturally enough, my comparison, "Table 2: Comparing Impact Factor and Tiers rankings for some journals" is favourable for AJET and unfavourable to three of its major, higher tiered competitors [17]. Actually, it is quite easy to do this kind of critical commentary, because the ARC seems to steadfastly refuse to reveal in detail the methodology it followed in deriving its Tiers ranked list [18]. Or, it cannot reveal any detail because it left the matter mostly to its "peak bodies and other academic groups" (characterised in Editorial 26(6) as 'clique bodies' [18]). Perhaps the ARC failed to realise that it was not sufficient to undertake a consultation process, it had to undertake also a research process.

Some examples of contemporary academic criticism of Tiers are cited in AJET Editorial 26(6) [18]. Examples of recent press criticism of Tiers and other aspects of the ERA have appeared regularly in The Australian, including "Journal rankings rankle academics" [19], "Matching input and output assessments" [20] and others [21, 22, 23, 24]. The ARC's announcement of a Tier Review Process [3] is likely to stimulate further criticism; indeed it could become a torrent of critical commentary about Tiers and other aspects of the ERA. Faced with this prospect, the ARC may develop a 'bunker' response, that is 'batten down and weather the storm'. After all, it can rely on the support of most of the senior managers from most of the universities. Quite understandably, they may be reluctant to 'bite the hand that feeds them'. Also, the ARC's reference to "public consultation in early 2011" [3] may indicate a desire to get it over and done with during the traditional holiday month for Australian academics.

Of course it would be unfortunate if the ARC were to go into 'bunker mode'. After all, it should be an influential leader in reviewing the question of why do research. Is why do research to be focused narrowly upon attaining "international excellence" above all else, or is the why to be blended with other big purposes, like serving the community who fund the research, and the professional growth of researchers? To what extent is "international excellence" aligned with our community's needs and the professional growth of researchers (that is, recognising research as embedding an element of learning, illustrated most prominently in university processes concerned with awarding of research degrees, academic appointments and promotions)? There may be many calls for the ARC to probe more deeply into its policy formulation and the research that informed it, that is, do much more than become embroiled in a Tier Review Process.

How do the technologies influence this scene? Quite significantly: of the many technological advances that serve modern scholarly publishing, the one that I single out for special mention is the use of 'bots', for example Googlebot [25]. The use of 'bots' and related software for indexing the harvested data is enabling the traditional producers of large scale bibliometric data (e.g. Elsevier's Scopus [26] and Thomson Reuters' Citation Index series [27]) to follow Google's lead as they move from a highly selective set of journals towards very comprehensive or even near universal coverage of the journal literature, although progress is not uniform. The technologies have enabled a massive compilation of bibliometric or journalmetric data [28]. What the technologies have not enabled and cannot enable is a scholarly consensus about the limitations and appropriate uses of such data. May the forthcoming barney about the ARC's Tier Review Process test this hypothesis!


  1. Email circulated by Seb Schmoller, Association for Learning Technology, 14 Oct 2010. I thank Associate Professor Rob Phillips for drawing my attention to the RFP.
  2. Schmoller, S. & Ryan, L. (2010). Request for Proposals to publish Research in Learning Technology, the journal of the Association for Learning Technology. Documentation. Association for Learning Technology. http://repository.alt.ac.uk/836/1/ALTJ_RFP_v8_20101014.pdf
  3. ARC (Australian Research Council). Review of the ERA 2010 Ranked Outlet Lists. Announcement dated 1 November 2010. http://www.arc.gov.au/era/era_2012/review_of_era10_ranked_outlet_lists.htm
  4. ARC (2010). Ranked Journal List http://www.arc.gov.au/xls/ERA2010_journal_title_list.xls (Excel format, 5.27 MB, apparently dated 9 February 2010). For those who find the ARC's file too cumbersome and slow to handle on their personal computers, I recommend highly John Lamp's service [5].
  5. Lamp, J. (2010). ERA Current Rankings Access. http://lamp.infosys.deakin.edu.au/era/
  6. An earlier version of the text relating to ALT and ALT-J appeared on 26 October 2010 as part of AJET Editorial 26(6), http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/editorial26-6.html, but it was 'unpublished' on 5 November 2010 in response to a request from the President of ascilite, who expressed certain concerns that need not be detailed here.
  7. AJET (Australasian Journal of Educational Technology). http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/
  8. HERD (Higher Education Research and Development). http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/07294360.asp
  9. Distance Education. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/01587919.asp
  10. Taylor & Francis Group Corporate Website. http://www.taylorandfrancisgroup.com/
  11. AJET Editorial 23(3). IM 20: The journal publishing industry. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet23/editorial23-3.html
  12. See one of AJET's 'watching lists' for details. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/about/ref/resources.html#software
  13. AJET Editorial 24(2). IM 25: Online preprints and open access for commercial journals. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet24/editorial24-2.html
  14. AJET Editorial 26(1). Journal rankings: AJET demoted. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/editorial26-1.html
  15. ARC (2009). Tiers for the Australian Ranking of Journals. http://www.arc.gov.au/era/tiers_ranking.htm. Obtaining the percentages is now a little more difficult: Google "Frequently Asked Questions Bibliometrics" to locate http://www.dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/8F12ADCB-C221-421E-A128-2C344CD58BDF/18968/FAQBibliometrics_17October2007.pdf
  16. ARC (2009). Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC). (PDF, 4.5 MB). http://www.arc.gov.au/era/ANZSRC.htm (again, I recommend highly John Lamp's service [5]).
  17. AJET Editorial 26(5). Idle Moment 40: Impact Factor revisited. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/editorial26-5.html
  18. AJET Editorial 26(6). A Letter to the Editor: Defending the ERA initiative. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/editorial26-5.html
  19. Rowbotham, J. (2010). Journal rankings rankle academics. The Australian, 10 November. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/journal-rankings-rankle-academics/story-e6frgcjx-1225950277254
  20. Smith, A. (2010). Matching input and output assessments. The Australian, 10 November. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/matching-input-and-output-assessments/story-e6frgcko-1225950268027
  21. Rowbotham, J. (2010). Research assessment to remain unchanged for second round. The Australian, 3 November. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/research-assessment-to-remain-unchanged-for-second-round/story-e6frgcjx-1225946924155
  22. Rowbotham, J. (2010). Methodology queried in research assessment. The Australian, 20 October. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/methodology-queried-in-research-assessment/story-e6frgcjx-1225940876855
  23. Calford, M. (2010). ERA of changed metrics. The Australian, 25 August. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/era-of-changed-metrics/story-e6frgcjx-1225909566264
  24. Moodie, G. (2010). Too much parish pump in ranking of journals. The Australian, 17 February 17. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/too-much-parish-pump-in-ranking-of-journals/story-e6frgcko-1225830831627
  25. Google (2010). Google Basics. http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=70897&cbid=1qz82xprqig0r&src=cb&lev=%20index
  26. Elsevier B. V. (2010). SciVerse Scopus. http://www.info.sciverse.com/scopus/
  27. Thomson Reuters (2010). Scholarly research, publishing and analysis. http://thomsonreuters.com/products_services/science/academic/
  28. Atkinson, R. (2010). Bibliometrics out, journalmetrics in! HERDSA News, 32(1). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/32-1.html

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on the TL Forum and ascilite Conference series, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format): http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2010). ARC announces a Tier Review Process. HERDSA News, 32(3). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/32-3.html

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