Recognising the contribution of research students

Harry Rolf
3 min readOct 22, 2020

By Harry Rolf, Peter Derbyshire, and Nigel Palmer.

This article is written in response to the Australian Research Council (ARC) review of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and Engagement and Impact (EI) assessment frameworks (2020). In it we argue that the the contributions of research students (PhD and Masters by Research) in Australia should be recorded in the ERA and EI.

Unfortunately, the ERA and EI exercises do not currently identify or recognise the contributions of research students to research impact and engagement. Comprehensive linked meta-data on research student contributions would improve the usefulness of this data in informing decisions, shaping policy and conducting research related to the contributes made by research students to research impact and engagement in Australia.

The Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimate that in Australia PhD students contribute more than half (56% in 2018) of the human resources dedicated to higher education research and development.¹ This is a significant proportion, and it raises the question of, to what extent, research students contribute to impact and engagement in Australia? Conservatively we estimate that some 30% of ERA publications are likely co-authored by research students, a figure supported by analysis of PhD contributions to research in other countries.²

Research on research (also known as the science of science, meta-research or meta-science) is not new but has recently come to be recognised as a discipline, which focuses on the study of research itself and its practices.

A better understanding of research can help improve performance, communication, validity, quality, evaluation, reward, recognition and outcomes of research.³ ⁴ Research on research has a lot to offer the ERA and EI exercises and conversely these exercises have a role to play in helping address the discipline’s pressing challenges such as the measurement of impact and its adverse effects.⁵

The recently established Research on Research Institute (of which the ARC is a member) has identified that a better understanding of the PHD as a key priority. Despite playing a central role in research and development, and economic policy, evidence and data about PhD students and graduates is severely limited.⁶

In Australia national data on research students is only collected by the The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) as a subset of national higher education student data collection, and to a limited extent by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).⁷ While DESE has recently begun to include information on end-user engagement by research students in the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC), there is no data collected which identifies the research impact and engagement contribution of research students by either DESE or the ABS.


To enable research on research student contributions to research impact and engagement greater access to ERA and EI data including comprehensive linked metadata is needed which identifies the contributions of research students.

To meet its aims as a transparency initiative findings should be made available in a way that is useful for interested stakeholders, including through publishing accessible .pdf reports and making quantitative data available in a tabular format.











Harry Rolf

I work to translate existing knowledge into evidence-based tools, policy and techniques to improve practice, equity and advocacy for the disadvantaged.