7th December 2011: 4 Publications, 3 Years

New Matilda recently published articles by Henry Barnes and academic staff on Sydney University’s announced budget cuts.


Buried in the debates about academic institutional governance and infrastructure projects is one decision rule: academics must have published four articles over a preceding three year period (January 2009 – November 2011) to be exempt from potential job loss.


This is a mixed rule which prioritises publishing volume over strategic research programs and citations impact. Three A* journal articles are far superior to four C ranked papers (although the ARC’s Excellence for Research in Australia initiative has now dispensed with letter rankings for journals). Publishing cycles can vary for ARC Discovery and Linkage grants. More prestigious journals have higher rejection rates and longer cycles for ‘revise and resubmit’ drafts and blind peer review feedback. Collaborations can also take longer. The decision rule doesn’t address quality criteria for research programs.


That said, Sydney University’s decision rule sets a low threshold for publications output. It’s far lower than the output levels expected of Associate Professors and is on par with the research active index of a senior lecturer (Level C academic) at most institutions. Academics with a coherent research program; research design knowledge; and existing collaborations should be able to publish four journal articles over a three year period. That’s roughly 20,000 to 28,000 words over three years — or 12,000 to 15,000 words for some online journals. There are even guides like Wendy Laura Belcher‘s Writing Your Journal Article In 12 Weeks (Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA, 2009) that take you step-by-step through the drafting process. Throw in a personal productivity framework like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and you can navigate some common workload issues. (Sure, perhaps workload issues are important to you — and there are ways to reframe how you deal with them without getting caught up in workload model arguments.)


Some New Matilda respondents feel the decision rule is a travesty. I disagree. I know plenty of sessional academics with no job security and vastly lower pay who can still meet the decision rule’s threshold. In many cases, so can newly hired academics who have a strong sense of identity and have conceptualised a research program. The problem will be staff who don’t have publication outputs (and the reasons vary on a case-by-case basis) or academics who almost meet the threshold but have delays in their research programs. But maybe some underpaid, productive, new voices deserve a shot.


If you want to outmaneuver such decision rules and the administrative, finance and management staff who formulate them, then take a lesson from asset management and private equity firms: read a book like Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days (Harvard University Press, Boston MA, 2003) or George B. Bradt’s The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2009) and develop a new action plan every 90-100 days. Scott Berkun‘s Making Things Happen (O’Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2008) provides most of what you need to know about project management. Have two or three analytical research questions to pursue. Join a professional association in your expertise area. Read the top journals and study their research designs. Know who the national and international teams are for your research questions. Your colleagues who get promoted to Associate Professor or Professor have already worked out some of these strategies.


Increasingly, academia is like Moneyball: in a winner-takes-all market you need to be creative, innovative, and productive to excel.