‘Devastating career event’: scientists caught out by change to Australian Research Council fine print | Research funding

Researchers have been deemed ineligible for critical career grants by the Australian Research Council as the result of a rule change that has been described as punitive, “extraordinary” and out of keeping with modern scientific practices.

Researchers are devastated and angry after being ruled out for Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowships because of a new requirement that bans preprint material from being cited in funding applications, with several saying it spells the end of their careers in academia or Australian universities.

Guardian Australia has spoken to six researchers at four universities, in the fields of astronomy, computer science and physics, whose applications were deemed ineligible as a result of the technicality.

All spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear that publicly sharing their names would jeopardise their chances of appeal.

Research published in academic journals undergoes rigorous peer-review prior to publication. But it is common practice for scientists in certain fields to also upload their work, prior to publication, in preprint form to servers such as the arXiv.

A well-established rule previously prevented ARC applicants from including articles that were not yet peer-reviewed in lists of their own publications. But the rule changed in the 2021 funding round for Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) and mid-career Future Fellowships to include any mention of preprints at all – even when used to refer to the research of others. Researchers say they were not informed of the change.

DECRA and Future Fellowships provide crucial salary funding for researchers in three- and four-year blocks, respectively. They are competitive fellowships with success rates of less than 20%.

Applications caught out by the new rule have been collated by the Twitter account ARC Tracker, which is run by an Australian researcher. The account’s administrator said they were aware of at least 23 people whose applications had been deemed ineligible as a result.

In a sector already affected by funding cuts, several researchers said the scrapping of their applications jeopardised their career chances in Australia.

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One scientist, whose university had offered her a rare permanent position contingent upon her receiving a DECRA, said the disqualification severely limited her funding options in Australia.

It was her second application for a DECRA, which early-career researchers can only apply for a maximum of twice.

“I spent four months of my time preparing this application,” she said. “To be not judged highly enough is fine … but to not be judged is such a waste of time.

“It really is a devastating career event for me,” she said. “I basically have to start from zero again and reconsider my future.

“I want to live in Australia but I feel like I might not have the option.”

Another affected researcher, whose university contract ends soon, said: “Unless something falls out of the sky soon, I’m having to look for jobs outside astronomy. I’m moving on.”

A third said: “If Australia wants a strong scientific community and this is the way that they’re funding that scientific community, we’re all just going to leave.

“I’m preparing for an exit from the academic career path entirely. I’m just sick of this.”

Preprint rule out of line with ‘modern publication culture’

In their 41-page document of instructions to DECRA applicants, the ARC asks researchers to “include information about national and international progress” relevant to their application and field of research.

One scientist said it was not possible to cite all relevant research in her field without referring to preprints. “Otherwise, it forces us to plagiarise,” she said.

Another said: “I made a reference to two preprints that I did not co-author. These are two fairly prominent preprints in the field and had I neglected to cite them I would have been guilty of academic misconduct.”

One astrophysicist told Guardian Australia that after receiving positive comments from ARC assessors, his application was deemed ineligible for citing a piece of software housed on the arXiv server, even though it was not a preprint.

“I was really annoyed … for the amount of work that you put into it – to be ruled out on a technicality which is even not applicable in my case.”

A Future Fellowship applicant, who described feeling “angry, destroyed, mistreated”, was similarly disqualified for citing a technical document on a server that usually hosts preprints.

“It is starting to be very challenging in this country to be able to do any research,” he said.

Prof Sven Rogge, president of the Australian Institute of Physics, said the rule change strongly affected the physics community, where preprints were widely used.

“In my opinion, the ARC rules are not in line with the modern publication culture. The sudden and narrow interpretation of this rule punishes young scientists that intended to give other people due credit,” Rogge said.

“Preprints are important to disseminate results while they are under peer review in journals which is a process that often takes many months.

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“The science around Covid has demonstrated the importance of preprints around essential scientific communication to the public when important studies have been cited in the press while they were under peer review.”

An affected astronomer said: “If your paper isn’t on the arXiv, it’s not read, period.”

In certain fields such as computer science, some seminal works only appear on preprint servers and not in journals.

On Twitter, Prof Daniel Angus at the Queensland University of Technology pointed to the algorithm VGG16 as an example. A paper on the algorithm – one of the most widely used image classification systems in the world, and one used in research currently funded by the ARC – appears only on the arXiv and has been cited more than 60,000 times.

Vidit Nanda, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, described the rule on Twitter as “a remarkably stupid own-goal for Australian science at large, and particularly brutal for mathematics”.

Preprints are accepted in applications by many funding bodies internationally, including the European Research Council and the National Institutes of Health in the US.

The Australian Mathematical Society tweeted its president had requested a meeting with the ARC.

The ARC did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia about why the preprint rule was changed for the latest funding round, but said the rule “ensures that all applications are treated the same”.

It said: “This requirement was also communicated to research offices through webinars at the time of the opening of the grant round. This requirement has been in place since September 2020, expanding on the previous requirement of exclusion of preprints in an applications [sic] research output listing.”

Of the affected researchers who spoke to Guardian Australia, none had preprint citations flagged by their university research offices, who coordinate funding applications and scour grants to ensure they meet eligibility criteria.

According to the ARC’s summary of outcomes, 25 DECRA and 27 Future Fellowship applications were deemed ineligible. The ARC did not confirm how many of these were a result of the preprint rule.

It said: “Eligibility issues may arise in a number of ways, such as through ARC review of applications and through expert assessors, who are discipline experts, raising those issues for consideration by the ARC.”

No researchers who spoke to Guardian Australia had eligibility problems raised during the ARC’s review process, in which expert assessors are sent applications to provide comments. Several received very positive feedback.

Guardian Australia is aware of some funding applications that were unsuccessful but not deemed ineligible despite including preprint citations, suggesting the preprint rule may have hit well-ranked research proposals in high contention for funding.

On Thursday night, Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi wrote to the chief executive of the ARC, Sue Thomas, about the “extraordinary and highly undesirable situation”.

“It’s clear that this approach and apparent rule change have rendered many researchers ineligible for grants that they may well have received.

“Researchers put hundreds of hours into these extensive applications. The trajectories of entire careers are often based on the success – or failure – of grant acceptance.

“ARC should be facilitating fair, transparent and comprehensible processes for applications.”

A spokesperson at one of the affected universities said they would be raising the issue with the ARC. “We really feel for the impacted candidates, because we know how much work goes into crafting these proposals.”

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