With the Federal Government pausing the next Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) round, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne Professor Marie Sierra writes now is a good time to consider the value, and growing influence, of non-traditional research outputs.
Creating and communicating new knowledge is the bread-and-butter of academic work. And the traditional paper – published in a peer-reviewed journal, addressing a ‘gap’ in existing knowledge – is the typical way it’s done.
But, while vital, journal articles are not the only way to communicate new knowledge.
Non-traditional research outputs, which are essentially any output other than an article or book, make noteworthy contributions and are growing in influence.
In the last Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) report published in 2018, they constituted the majority of outputs in some disciplines (visual arts, performing arts, creative writing) and a significant minority in others (architecture, design practice).
Non-traditional research outputs can be plays, music performances, or models of buildings. They also take the form of research reports for government (influencing policy for example), or exhibitions. They span the full range of ways in which humans explore and communicate knowledge.
In doing so, they embrace a broader understanding of intelligence and development than the academy has traditionally recognised. Journal articles are usually designed for a narrow audience – only people intimate with the field can usually see how a new piece of research fills a gap in the existing knowledge.
But non-traditional outputs are often more accessible to people new to the area. We can readily, and easily, connect with this form of research because at some point in our lives, we have all sung a song, created an artwork or role-played a character.
Academic journal articles also go through a rigorous peer-review process, facing scrutiny by experts in the field before publication. Non-traditional research outputs can also be peer-reviewed, although by different processes.
A competitive process for inclusion in an exhibition or a festival can be a peer-review process, for example, as can be literature competitions, submissions for performances at prestigious venues or tender processes for government reports.
A contract to perform with a notable dance or theatre company may mean years of auditioning in front of a panel before being selected for a role, a role that is reinvestigated each time it is performed.
When peer review is performed in non-traditional research, it goes through the same level of scrutiny as traditional research, passing the examination of experts in the field who hold a high level of specialist expertise.
Valuing different ways of knowing
Non-traditional research outputs also embody different ways of knowing, tapping into our inner worlds in ways that extend tightly defined notions of what is ‘academic’.
For example, a play might reflect current societal issues, helping us explore our sense of being in the world, like the project Feral Queer Camp (Alyson Campbell and Steve Farrier). A film may unearth, and piece together, a lost history, like the documentary Ablaze (Alec Morgan and Tiriki Onus). Or a music performance may lead us to examine our relationship with the natural world, like Songs of the Helmeted Honeyeater (Jane Hammond).
It is time to challenge the white western notions of intelligence and knowledge-sharing that dominate what we consider ‘valid’ research. We need to value all forms of human endeavour and recognise the merit in diverse means of finding and communicating knowledge. For example, rich data about managing Australia’s unique biodiversity has been passed orally through generations in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but we have ignored this knowledge until very recently in the academy. This has led to missed opportunities.
A fascination with the new is also dominant within traditional research, but sometimes discovery requires pausing and backtracking, not moving incrementally forwards, but moving laterally. Connecting ideas laterally is something creative practitioners are trained to do – boundaries are inscribed only to be erased and reinscribed, but never quite in the same place they were before.
While both traditional outputs and NTROs build on discipline-specific knowledge, training in a creative field makes one strongly inclined to make these ‘sideways’ connections across disciplines. As a result, NTROs often communicate knowledge from these horizontal and highly contextualised processes, prompting reflection as they decentre the idea of communicating a single ‘truth’.
As of writing, the Federal Government has paused its planned 2023 ERA. It’s time to rethink this incredibly time consuming and expensive exercise that universities have taken part in for many years. The question now is one of value for effort, and how to both uphold and rediscover the foundational process of peer review.
We should seek a better understanding of how knowledge building itself has evolved and continue to adapt to contemporary challenges through the recognition of different forms of expanding and communicating knowledge. Through this process we can strengthen what research can be.
Banner image: 2021 VCA Art grad show, photographed by Drew Echberg. Artwork: Natalie Mather, spectrisparadis: VCA ART 2021 | Natalie Mather (unimelb.edu.au)