Researchers who challenged the Australian Research Council’s rejection of critical funding applications on the basis of a controversial rule change have been vindicated, with their appeal upheld and 32 previously rejected projects deemed eligible for funding.
Researchers across the sciences and humanities were left furious and frustrated in August after their applications for Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowships were rejected because of a new rule that banned preprint material from being cited.
The ban was introduced by the federal government agency in the 2021 funding round of the Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (Decra) and Future Fellowships.
After widespread outrage from the Australian research community, the ARC overturned the rule in September.
Researchers behind 28 applications appealed the decision of the ARC to deem their applications ineligible.
All those appeals were upheld by the ARC’s independent appeals committee. The ruling was extended to a further four applicants that did not submit an appeal but had been excluded on the same basis.
Of those 32 reassessed applications, six were ranked highly in the grants assessment process and were recommended for funding, the ARC said in a statement on Thursday. They consisted of five Decra applications and one Future Fellowships application.
The remaining 26 applications were ruled to be eligible but not recommended for funding due to their lower ranking.
Decra and Future Fellowship grants provide crucial multi-year salary funding for researchers. They determine the trajectory of many researchers’ careers and can be a critical factor in their job security. They are also deeply competitive, and eligible applications are subject to a ranking process, which determines whether or not they are then recommended for funding.
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The applications themselves are very time-consuming, with researchers routinely spending months putting them together, with success rates of less than 20%.
Articles published in academic journals undergo peer review, a critical part of the process that ensures published research is robust and rigorous. It is a slow process, so it is common practice in some disciplines to upload new research to preprint servers for broader access while peer-review is taking place.
It has long been a requirement of ARC applications that researchers could not refer to preprints of their own work. But the new and now-revoked rule change banned references to all preprints, even where they were not authored by the applicant – a decision that was described as out of keeping with modern research practices and “a remarkably stupid own-goal for Australian science”.
It was revealed in August that grant applications worth $22m in funding were deemed ineligible due to this rule change – after the Senate passed an order requiring the government to provide de-identified information about them.
In backflipping on the new rule in September, the ARC said the use of preprints would no longer be an eligibility issue, and future applications would not be excluded by their use.
The appeals ruling came after the Greens senator and education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi wrote to the ARC on 30 November to push the council to come to a decision, with the next round of Future Fellowship applications due on 15 December and some applicants still unsure of whether they would need to reapply.
“The success of these appeals is a vindication of the researchers who were so poorly treated by the ARC,” Faruqi said on Thursday.
“The ARC needs to learn from this whole saga. Researchers need much clearer, more appropriate processes and rules – including set timelines. Otherwise, there will always be mistrust.”
The ARC said all eligible but unfunded applicants could reapply in the next funding round.