AUSTRALIA: No place for People and Place

The final edition of one of Australia's most oft-quoted academic journals has just been published. The controversial founder of People and Place, Dr Bob Birrell, used his final editorial to savage the federal government's Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, which he believes has led to the journal's demise and is affecting academics in the humanities and social sciences.

Birrell founded People and Place at Monash University with co-editor Dr Katherine Betts from Swinburne University in 1993, two years after he had established the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash. He and his team have produced the journal four times a year for the past 18 years and it has generated more heated discussions about a wide range of topical issues than any other such venture in the country.

Although as enthusiastic as he ever was regarding the work he does, Birrell is pessimistic about the future of free academic inquiry, especially in public policy areas.

He says this is because of the impact of the federal government's Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, which is overseen by the Australian Research Council and was created to analyse the research strengths of the nation's universities and reward those at the top.

As has happened in other Western countries, Australian governments of various political persuasions have increasingly wanted to see financial pay-offs for the billions they spend on research.

In the case of the ERA, the research council compiled a list of journals to be included in its assessments and ranks them using four tiers of quality rating: A+ (top 5%): "Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality"; A (next 15%): The majority of papers "will be of very high quality"; B (next 30%): Generally, "one would expect only a few papers of very high quality"; C (next 50%): Journals "that do not meet the criteria of higher tiers".

As Birrell and Betts note in the editorial, almost all of the A+ journals are "elite international publications with little interest in research focused on Australian conditions. So while People and Place has had a significant influence on public policy in Australia it does not have an international profile".

Curiously, an initial ERA evaluation committee gave People and Place a B ranking but the research council subsequently downgraded it to a C.

According to Birrell, this means research published in his journal "actually diminishes the possibility of [Monash] university gaining a high rating for demography". The ERA also does not count industry-based research "which tackles significant social or economic issues" - topics that have always been covered in People and Place.

The research council is obliged to take account of the government's objectives, which are to reward universities for the excellence of their research - according to the criteria set out in the ERA. As Birrell says, a university's performance under the new system is now critical to its financial health.

"Not surprisingly, Monash has reacted by putting pressure on departments and research centres that rank poorly to change the way they go about their work," Birrell and Betts write. "In our case, the pressure has been to restructure People and Place so it becomes a conventional academic journal.

"This would require a complete change in the journal's philosophy and, under the circumstances, we decided it would be better to put our time and hard-earned industry money to better use; thus the decision to stop publishing..."

Birrell's centre and his journal are not alone in losing out under the ERA. Across the social sciences and the humanities, research focusing on Australian issues of importance and offering possible solutions to serious social problems are also likely to suffer.

"As things stand it will not be possible for young Australian academics to follow our path," Birrell and Betts say.

"Where will future generations of Australian social scientists and demographers find the opportunity to undertake research training? All those aspiring to do research relevant to their community will find promotional opportunities limited because universities will be preoccupied with improving their research rating according to the ERA criteria."

But while the outcome for People and Place generated considerable media attention, not everyone regretted its death.

Academics Sandy Gifford at La Trobe University and Kim Dovey at the University of Melbourne wrote to The Australian's higher education section to declare that the end of People and Place was really "a success story of the ERA displacing a journal with low scholarly standards".

"The journal People and Place received a C ranking because it deserves it," the two critics wrote. "It has long been used to provide academic legitimacy as a basis for policy development. ERA was right to give it a C and Monash was right to be rid of it."

But these harsh words were countered the following week by others who saw different motives at work.

Patricia Weaver in Western Australia wrote: "Axing this journal at a time when contentious issues such as population, climate change and immigration are so prominent smacks of political correctness. When universities abrogate their role in providing an independent voice for the community, they obviously are playing politics in a big way and are on the slippery slope to mediocrity or worse."

Likewise Lyle Allan, a political science researcher in Melbourne, decried the unseemly attack by the other Melbournians, declaring: "This is not something one would expect from professionals who normally put down anything they see as not being reasoned argument.

"The quality of articles, not the alleged quality of a journal, is more important than the views of well-paid Canberra bureaucrats and their ridiculous system of journal rankings. People and Place's editors Bob Birrell and Kathy Betts are arguably among Australia's leading experts on population issues, and its articles are frequently cited in the media.

"We do not know the factors that distinguish an A+, A, B or C journal. It is a disgrace that university faculties can have their funding affected by the ranking of journals where their staff contribute," Allan continued.

"Many articles in the higher ranked journals are, in the subjective opinion of this letter writer, very much inferior to much publication in lower-ranked journals. Is there a conflict of interest in those responsible for the rankings?"

* A profile of Bob Birrell is published in this week's Features section.